Caught between military occupation and unemployment, Palestinians continue to work in the Israeli economy without full labour rights

Palestinian workers hurry at dawn to reach the Ni’lin checkpoint, west of Ramallah, to cross into Israel on a border permit. Many who do not have the permission of the Israeli army cross illegally anyway, in order to find work on the other side of the Green Line which separates the occupied Palestinian territories from the state of Israel. (Qassam Muaddi)

It is four in the morning and heavy rain washes the deserted alleys of the village of Al Midiah, west of Ramallah. A white minibus makes its way through in the darkness between the stone houses, towards the olive groves, at the western end of the village. The vehicle stops with a sudden jerk of the brake and 10 young people get out. They rush over the wet ground of a dirt road, between the prickly pears. The oldest, Mohammad, is 33 years old, with a backpack, a hood over his head, and a packet of tobacco in his hand. These young Palestinians will attempt to cross the Green Line, separating the occupied West Bank and Israel, illegally. Israel’s concrete separation wall comes to an end before Al Midiah. Here, the Green Line is marked by barbed wire that crosses the valley and in which workers regularly make holes to cross – at the risk of finding the Israeli Defence Force (IDF) patrolling the other side.

Three kilometres from Al Midiah, in the village of Ni’lin, Palestinian workers gather in the only shop open before dawn to have breakfast, before resuming their journey to the checkpoint and crossing into Israel. These workers have work permits. One of them, 23-year-old Sanad, only got his three days prior through his employer.

“I am studying accounting at the Free University of Jerusalem. I have been engaged for two years and need to save for my wedding. So, I worked clandestinely for a year in Israel, but found another employer who applied for the permit. This is the first time I’m going to use it,” he says.

According to the Palestinian Central Bureau of Statistics (PCBS), at the end of 2019, nearly 135,000 Palestinians were employed in the Israeli labour market, more than half of them in the construction sector (65 per cent) and the rest in agriculture or services. These figures include workers in Israeli settlements in the West Bank, as well as those inside the state of Israel. Although the settlements are illegal under international law, in the Palestinian territory occupied since 1967, they are considered by Israel to be an integral part of its economy. To work there, Palestinian workers must obtain a permit. However, nearly 20 per cent of Palestinian workers in Israel and the settlements do not have permits, which in 2019 still amounted to nearly 27,000 workers.

The black market in permits
Obtaining a permit, issued on ‘security’ grounds by the Israeli army, is not easy, especially for young men, single people and residents of areas where there is the most political activism. This motivates women, especially mothers, to apply for work permits to help support their families. This is the case with Randa Mansour, 52, who works in an Israeli restaurant in a settlement near her village. “My husband is an electrician, my oldest son is a firefighter, but I still have two daughters in college and a son in school,” she tells Equal Times. “My husband’s and son’s wages do not cover all of our expenses, so I applied for a work permit in the colony two years ago.”

Despite their young age, some workers are very experienced. Sanad, for example, explains that “if you have a permit, you can earn up to 400 shekels (€100) for an eight-hour day, but only if you are a specialist, in tiling or bricklaying, for example. If you are a regular worker like me, you earn between 200 and 300 shekels (€50 to €75)”. For many, however, this is more than what they can earn on the Palestinian labour market. According to the PCBS, the average daily gross salary of Palestinian workers in Israel and the settlements is effectively between ILS 255 (approximately €64) and ILS 261 (approximately €66), but workers also have to absorb significant deductions from dues and fees. In addition, the wages for Palestinian workers is often lower than those of Israelis for an equivalent job.

The substantial advantage that the permit nevertheless confers has created a black market, led by some traders who offer their guarantee to the workers in return for large sums of money. This type of arrangement represents up to 30 per cent of total permits. Hussein Al Beik, legal adviser to the Palestinian General Federation of Trade Unions (PGFTU), says that “some intermediaries take advantage of the need for the permit and charge workers up to a third of their income.”

These are people are “Palestinian profiteers who hire as middlemen. An employer who only needs ten workers asks for permits for 50, then sells them through one of these profiteers and they share the profit,” says Mahmoud Ziadeh, co-founder of the Union of Independent Trade Unions of Palestine (UITUP).

This system places workers at the mercy of their employer and prevents them from claiming their social rights. However, new legislation should come into force in December 2020 to issue permits that will not be linked to a single employer.

“Permit dealers are thieves. They are sucking our blood. One of them made me pay 2,600 shekels for a permit (€650). I had to pay him 150 shekels (€130) every day, whether I found a job or not. That’s why now, I prefer to go illegally,” exclaims Mohammad, sitting on the cement floor of a house under construction in Al Midiah, where workers have taken refuge while waiting for the right moment to cross. As he speaks, three teenagers decide to take the risk one last time.

Meanwhile, at the Ni’lin checkpoint, Sanad is rushing to get the best place he can in the queue for permit checks. “Once I get through, I take the bus to Tel Aviv, where my employer will pick me up.” He has a two-hour outward journey and another two hours home, every day. Sometimes more, when there is a problem at the checkpoint. “For Israeli employees it’s right next door, they don’t have to get up as early as us.” But that’s not the only advantage that Israeli employees enjoy. “They have social security,” Sanad adds, “we don’t.”

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Working without protection
In his introduction to the International Labour Organization (ILO) report The situation of workers of the Arab occupied territories, published in May 2020, the organisation’s director-general Guy Ryder wrote: “The Palestinian labour market continues to present a grim picture. Unemployment is rampant and protection failing. Stifled by occupation, it can meet neither the needs nor the aspirations of the Palestinian people.”

Even though Palestinian workers have had no social security for years, Israel deducts contributions from their wages. These contributions include what is known as the ‘equalisation tax’. According to the Paris Economic Protocol, signed by the Palestinian Authority and Israel in 1994, at the time of the Oslo negotiations, the Jewish state is supposed to transfer social security contributions to the Palestinian government. But the creation of a Palestinian social security system faces countless obstacles. For lack of a proper structure to manage the funds, Israel never transferred these contributions. According to the Palestine Economic Policy Research Institute, the total amount levied between 2006 and 2013 was US$169.2 million (€142 million).

It was not until 2019 that the Palestinian government approved the creation of a Palestinian social security fund. But this law triggered widespread protests, which prompted the Palestinian government to suspend its application.

“Social movements have rejected the law because they do not trust the people to whom it wants to entrust the fund. The law stipulates that the fund is a private company,” explains Ziadeh of the UITUP.

“Furthermore, according to the law, you have to contribute for 15 years, before touching barely 30 per cent of what you have contributed. For workers, the majority of whom earn less than 2,000 shekels (approximately €505) a month, that means staying poor all their life, just to get a few crumbs in the end”. He concludes: “The result is that we have no social security, and Palestinian workers still have no protection.”

Among the deductions made from the wages of Palestinian workers in Israel and the settlements are those for health coverage, which workers with a permit can theoretically benefit from. But in November 2019, these contributions were paid to less than 1.5 per cent of Palestinian workers, according to the Israeli daily newspaper Haaretz. In 2019, a total of ILS 515 million (€129.5 million) was levied. According to Ziadeh, “this amount has accumulated due to two factors. On the one hand, the difficulty of navigating the bureaucratic procedures to benefit from this insurance, and on the other hand, the ignorance of many workers of the existence of this fund”. Sanad explains: “If I get sick, I lose a day of work and no one is going to pay me for it”.

Medical coverage in the event of an accident is the only deduction that is really effective, and this is transferred monthly to a Palestinian fund. But again, it does not protect those who are not in the system. “This is the case for Ahmed Shalash, a young man from the village of Shuqba who worked with me in West Jerusalem, without a permit,” Mohammad says. “He fell from the fourth floor. He’s in a coma now.” Saleh Shalash, the father of 22-year-old Ahmed, tells Equal Times: “That same day [21 October 2020] I was working in Tel Aviv, with a permit. I got a call from one of Ahmed’s comrades who told me to go to the hospital in Jerusalem. Doctors told me he only had five hours to live. I thought I was going to lose my son. I started weeping.”

Ahmed’s employer was an Israeli construction company that hired him without a permit, along with four other young people from his village, all injured in the same accident. “The employer didn’t even make a phone call to find out how Ahmed was doing. The lawyer I assigned to the case told me that the company has changed its name. I can’t sue it or get medical insurance. I signed the hospital clearance papers, and now I don’t know how I’m going to pay. The only solace I have right now is that my son is still alive, even though he is in a coma,” says his father. According to the PGFTU, 24 Palestinian workers have died in work-related accidents in Israel since the start of 2020 alone.

The pandemic is worsening the situation of workers’ rights
The issue of Palestinian workers in Israel and the settlements returned to public attention at the start of the coronavirus health crisis. After the virus reached Israel last March, the Palestinian government called on Palestinian workers not to go to work on the Israeli side. At the same time, field observers noted that the IDF had left a number of border posts unattended, implicitly encouraging the entry of illegal workers. “During the first few weeks it was chaos around the barbed wire, there were so many people crossing that we had to queue,” says Mohammad. According to Ziadeh, “Israel had to keep its economy working, at the same time as containing the pandemic. So, they let Palestinian workers in at the start”.

On 19 March, the Israeli government allowed the workers who chose to do so to stay in their workplaces. But since those who decided to stay at home in the West Bank would be banned from travelling back and forth, that simply meant losing their jobs. “The security excuse that Israel has used for decades to prevent workers from living behind the Green Line simply disappeared overnight. Suddenly, and in the midst of a pandemic, Israel was no longer afraid of Palestinians. This will have to be remembered the next time Israel brings up this excuse,” says Ziadeh.

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At the start of the pandemic, only 75,000 Palestinians had stable and regular employment in Israel and the settlements. After Israel imposed its travel restrictions, this number fell to 19,000 in mid-April, according to the Institute for Palestinian Studies.

The first to sacrifice their work in order to stay at home were the women. “I couldn’t stay at the colony. I have no accommodation there, and I have children and responsibilities at home,” says Randa Mansour, who further explains: “I got no compensation, no help, no insurance pay-out. I had no income between March and June, and we felt it in our household budget.”

It was the same for Sanad: “During those three months, including the feast of Ramadan, I depended on my savings. Without them, there would have been no food at my parents’ house.” As for Mohammad, he decided to stay put in Israel and keep his job: “There were about 15 of us on the construction site in West Jerusalem. We spent the night there and slept on the floor, under the brick ceiling, still with no cement on, held up by posts,” he tells Equal Times. “Other workers in buildings that were already built were able to sleep on mattresses, but without heat, kitchens or toilets. We couldn’t go out and spent all the time on the building site. The Israeli employers were going home.”

In addition to these unbearable conditions, Palestinian workers feared being infected with the virus. There was shock at the story of an undocumented Palestinian worker who was literally dumped by Israeli police on 23 March at the Beit Sira checkpoint near Nablus. This young man had shown symptoms of fatigue and fever, which alarmed his Israeli employer. The incident brought to light the immensely precarious situation of these workers and the lack of care for them.

It did, however, show the need for new coordinated measures. The Israeli government finally forced employers in May 2020 to provide health insurance for Palestinian workers, as part of emergency health measures.

To deal with the unemployment, the Palestinian government created an aid fund for those affected economically by the pandemic, calling for donations. The fund’s initial goal was to raise 20 million Jordanian dinars (€23.7 million). However, by July, the fund had collected only JOD 12 million (€14.2 million), distributed, according to the Palestinian government, to 35,000 Palestinians, mostly workers.

The aid given to each beneficiary was ILS 700 (€175). For Randa, “700 shekels can help for one or two weeks. But for a period of three months, it is nothing. I applied anyway, but I wasn’t selected as a beneficiary.”

In a second attempt to tackle the coronavirus crisis, which is also affecting the Palestinian economy, the Palestinian government signed an agreement with the PGFTU, which set up so-called ‘crisis cells’, according to which private sector employers affected by the health restrictions would pay half of workers’ wages for March and April, with a minimum payment of ILS 1,000 (approximately €250). Yet this agreement only concerned employees of the Palestinian private sector and did not cover workers in Israel and the settlements. “Palestinian unions cannot negotiate with the Israeli government. These workers were left with nothing during the most difficult months of the pandemic,” UITUP’s Mahmoud Ziadeh emphasises.

“We don’t have any choice”
The sun rises and the call to prayer sounds in the village of Al Midiah, as Mohammad and his comrades prepare to return home. There will be no crossing into Israel that day. A worker walks into the house under construction with news that one of the three young people who tried to cross earlier has been caught by the Israeli army. “They will give him a ride in the jeep before throwing him out at the checkpoint,” Mohammad quipped. “He’s lucky, it’s his first time. Next time, he will be fined at least 5,000 shekels (€1,250), and possibly given a month in jail.”

Given these conditions, the fact that thousands of young Palestinians still seek work in Israel and its settlements requires an explanation. Ziadeh has one: “The social policies of the Palestinian Authority do not protect workers. The labour law does not apply to 75 per cent of workers in the private sector, and three-quarters of those working in the Palestinian private sector are paid less than the minimum wage, which is not even enough to live on. One day’s work for a Palestinian construction worker earns them less than ILS 100. Before the pandemic, there were already 487,000 unemployed young people. What do you expect them to do?”

Sanad emerges from the Ni’lin checkpoint with a bitter smile: “One more day without work,” he sighs. The Israeli checkpoint officer has just informed him that his permit has been revoked. No reason was given.

As he leaves the half-built house, Mohammad, who also won’t be working that day, thinks of the final message he wants to give and concludes in a serious voice: “What is most difficult for us is not the risks we take crossing the border, nor our working conditions. It is that people think that we do not know that we are giving our labour to the Occupation. We know that all too well, but we have no choice.” He takes the path between the prickly pears to join his comrades and turns around for the last time: “Don’t mention my real name. Because tomorrow, I will come back here”.

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