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In Defence of Palestinian Workers

Abed Elhalim Dari talks to the Star about his work supporting Palestinians working in the Israeli Occupied Territories

East Jerusalem-born Abed Elhalim Dari of labour rights group Kav LaOved — “Workers’ Hotline” — was in London for a few days last week.

Following the TUC-backed Campaigning for Palestine conference on April 5 — “a very productive, very helpful meeting,” he tells me — he was rushed off his feet speaking to meeting after meeting about his work supporting Palestinian workers in the Occupied Territories.

Fortunately he was able to squeeze in an hour to talk to the Star at the Palestine Solidarity Campaign’s Holloway Road office.

Dari has been Kav LaOved’s field co-ordinator in Jericho and the Jordan Valley for four years. But what does the work involve?

“Well, Kav LaOved is a non-profit organisation set up in 1991 to defend people’s rights at work,” he says.

“And this is a huge job when it comes to Palestinian workers.”

The crippling effect of the Israeli occupation starves the West Bank of jobs — unemployment, he points out, stands at 27 per cent.

As a result, Palestinians are driven to work for Israelis — either within Israel or in the illegal settlements mushrooming on Palestinian land.

“We’re talking about a lot of people. Israel runs a quota system — 40,300 Palestinians are permitted to work there, though there are between 20-30,000 Palestinians working there illegally,” he says.

“Then in the settlements there are 25-30,000 Palestinians who are legally employed. They don’t have quotas in the settlements. And probably another 10,000 who work without permits, mostly during harvest season.

“But whether legally or illegally employed these workers’ rights are violated all the time. Our job is to try to get them justice.

“Since 2007 — when an Israeli High Court of Justice ruling on a case we initiated confirmed that Israel’s labour laws apply fully to West Bank settlements — Palestinian workers should have had access to the same rights as Israeli workers. But the Israeli government does nothing to enforce it.”

Dari’s own work is in the Jordan Valley, 90 per cent of which lies in Area C — meaning Israel has full military and civil control.

Only 6 per cent of the land is allocated for “Palestinian labour and development.” The number of Israeli settlers is always growing — there were over 5,000 last year, compared to 2,300 in 1997.

They set up their businesses on privately owned Palestinian land — and then employ desperate Palestinians to work for them.

“In the Jordan Valley Palestinians working for Israelis are about 50 per cent in construction, 30 per cent in agriculture and 20 per cent in industry,” Dari notes.

“These are dangerous jobs. Accidents are common, often because proper equipment is not provided. Israel’s labour law says that after an accident at work an employee must be sent to an Israeli hospital and be compensated by the Israel National Insurance Institute and the employer.

“Instead, what we see is Israeli ambulances taking injured workers to checkpoints. They are handed over to Palestine, so the employer can skirt their responsibility and avoid paying for treatment — or indeed issuing sick pay, also a legal right.”

But if this breaches Israeli law, can’t the employer be taken to court for this?

“Well, yes — and Kav LaOved does do that,” he explains.

“But if an injured worker is taken to a checkpoint and then handed over it can be difficult to prove there was an accident. And these employers go to great lengths to hide the existence of any contract-like relationship with Palestinian staff.

“That isn’t just about avoiding sick pay or paying for hospital treatment of course. It’s to avoid honouring any of the basic legal rights of these workers. They don’t get pensions. They don’t get holidays. They don’t earn the minimum wage — the average earned among agricultural workers is 10 shekels an hour (£1.72) when it should be 23 shekels (£3.95).

“It can be even worse when subcontractors are involved — a company or farmer pays someone else to hire the labourers, and thus avoids direct responsibility for their wages and conditions. Since the subcontractor will deduct the fee for their services from already meagre wages, the workers are in an even worse situation.

“By law the employer has to provide payslips, which record the hours worked, the wage and the benefits. In the settlements, some simply withhold these — so they can’t be used in court.

“Or many will fake them. You say someone has worked 12 days in a month for you, not 24, and what you paid then meets the minimum wage even if it’s not much more than half that.

“Since the payslips are in Hebrew, it can be difficult for Palestinians to tell when they are being conned like this. Kav LaOved has created a booklet which we give out to workers, getting them to record their own hours so we can point to these as evidence.”

But wouldn’t workers soon avoid working for employers who are only paying them for half their time?

“They are not in a strong position. Palestinians need work permits to work in Israel or for a settlement. They rely on the employer to get that.

“Any criminal record, any history of arrest, and you don’t get it. This is bad in an area of acute unemployment. And the Palestinians are often not given their permits.

“Guards at the settlement will keep them and check the face of a worker against the permit. If a dispute begins, the Palestinian has no permit to prove he ever worked there.

“Then there’s blacklisting. Sue an employer or raise employment issues and you find your permit revoked for ‘security reasons.’ You can be denied work not just there, but throughout the settlements. And they don’t limit it to blacklisting individuals. They do it to whole families. It’s effective, it scares people.

“So, for example, a factory company called Aluminium Construction which made doors and windows was taken to court in 2011 for not paying the minimum wage.

“They tried to get their staff to sign an agreement by which they would be paid the Israeli minimum wage from 2011, but that in previous years they would accept the Jordanian minimum wage, which is much lower.

“But that’s illegal thanks to the 2007 ruling. We pointed this out and redrafted an agreement to get them their back pay, but the employer refused to sign. He fired three members of staff who had worked there for 15 years, and then reported them to the police, so they could not get other work for six months.

“The warning put pressure on others to sign. But we’re fighting the case in the courts. And we will win.”

Another problem — familiar across the world — is that workers don’t know their own rights in order to stand up for them. “We work closely with the Palestinian General Federation of Trade Unions, we hold workshops and teach people their rights, how to read their payslips, what may or may not make a court case.”

Is there much help from Israeli trade unions?

“Not at all. Palestinians working in Israel have membership fees deducted by these unions, but they will not represent or defend them. They have shown no concern over the abuse of rights in the Occupied Territories either.

“There is not much solidarity from within Israel, actually. There are sympathetic individuals and groups, and we managed to get a film made with Israel’s Channel 2 highlighting the problems Palestinian workers face to put pressure on the Knesset. But not a lot. We need outside pressure on Israel.”

Outside pressure such as the Boycott, Divestment and Sanctions movement, I ask?

“Kav LaOved is involved in protecting human rights,” Dari says. “We’re not political. But I will say this — why do Israelis like to plant in the West Bank, set up business in the West Bank?

“They can take land cheaply or for free. The taxes are much lower than in Israel. And the workers are much cheaper because their rights are ignored.

“If we can force them to pay minimum wage, to respect employee benefits as they would have to in Israel, that removes a major incentive for them to take the land.”

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