Sa’id Al Ghazali*
On Dec. 18, 2018,Palestinian workers at NA Metal Industries, in the settlement of Mishor Adumim, declared a warning strike after the employer had refused to meet their basic demands. Eleven workers who participated in the strike are unionized with WAC, which they joined after being persuaded that this organization would defend their rights.
The workers decided to strike following a labor dispute lasting some months, during which a number of meetings with the management were held but without any progress being made in the negotiations. In their experience, the manager and owner Mr. Arieh Nahum is an expert at procrastination and at rejecting every request from the workers, but this does not stop them or WAC from struggling to improve their employment terms.
When I called Nahum, he told me in Hebrew, “I don’t know you, I don’t want to talk to you, and I won’t answer your questions. Sorry,” and slammed down the phone. It was clear that my questions, about his willingness to negotiate seriously with the union and sign a collective agreement, had irritated him. The reason for this is simple: if he signs the agreement, he will have to share some of his profits with the workers.
Osama Abu Razeq is one of the three worker committee members. He has worked for 22 years in Mishor Adumim, seven of them in NA Metal Industries. He is a skilled worker, with lots of experience as a fitter, electrician, maintenance person and welder, but despite his skills, his basic rights are violated.
“I do everything,” he says. “I build offices from the foundations up to the very last detail, including laying electricity cables of various voltages, repairing tools, and maintenance. I have fitted air-conditioning in the employer’s apartment and repaired his car. I deserve more than just my current wage, which doesn’t include pension contributions or overtime. The employer doesn’t bother to give us wage slips, and in the rare occasions he does give them, they’re full of mistakes.”
“I work with a metal saw,” he continues. “That’s a dangerous tool which has already wounded many workers. When that happens, the employer takes the wounded worker in his car to the hospital in Jericho, and that’s all. Do you know the Jericho hospital? They tell you to go back to the factory and let them take care of you! We have no medical insurance via our employer, and the factory manager doesn’t care after he’s got the injured worker off the factory premises. He doesn’t ask about him afterwards, and at the end of the month he adds a few shekels to our wage slip which doesn’t show our real hours anyway. He treats us like worthless tools.”
Mohammed Salah, who has a central role in the workers’ struggle, is 43 years old and supports a family of eight. He has worked at the factory since 1996, and is now a foreman. He mends handrails and doorframes, and any work which involves iron and stainless steel. His demands are the same as those of Abu Razeq: annual leave, sick pay, a pension fund and a minimum hourly wage. He is angry that the employer fails to pay him for overtime or reimburse travel expenses, makes unjustified deductions from his pay, and refuses to give new workers wage slips. “I have been with this firm for 22 years, half my life,” he says. “I earn my wages with the sweat of my brow, and I deserve to get them in full. I don’t want to have to go to the courts for this.”
Ghazi Asali, the third worker committee member, is 30 years old and has worked at the factory for ten years, supporting a family of five. He says the employer fails to give him convalescence pay, reimburse him for travel expenses, or give him “holiday gifts” [such gifts are common in Israel and are usually determined by collective agreement – YP, translator]. He earns less than the minimum wage which is today NIS 5300 a month.
Hatem Abu Ziadeh is the person who helped connect the workers to WAC. Hatem works at the Zarfati Garage in Mishor Adumim and has been with WAC for five years. When he joined WAC, this was a decisive step in compelling the garage management to sign a collective agreement with the workers, which it did in February 2017. As a result, not only were the workers’ basic rights protected but they also received compensation and payments for past debts. This case shows that it is worthwhile overcoming fear of conflict with employers. Hatem’s story has given hope to many Palestinian workers in Israeli settlements, including those at NA Metal Industries. As soon as they understood that their rights could be gained with the help of a union, the workers found the courage to unionise with WAC.
WAC’s experience shows that Palestinian workers have the power and ability to improve their employment terms if they unionize with a determined workers organization. This was the message from WAC director Assaf Adiv to the factory workers when he met them on the second day of the strike, on Dec. 19, as part of a delegation of supporters organized by WAC. The meeting of the workers and the delegation, which included a group of activists and supporters who came to show solidarity, was held in a café near Jericho.
Adiv urged the workers at the meeting not to yield to the employer’s attempts to stir them up against each other with promises. “The employer is likely to offer one of you tens of thousands of shekels if he signs away your rights,” Adiv said. “If one of you is tempted to sign, it will undermine your solidarity and will mean complete victory for the employer. You will never be able to improve your employment terms in this way.” Adiv stressed that WAC would not assist workers who were not united among themselves. The aim of the workers’ organization is to set up workers’ committees within the workplaces and lead the way towards collective agreements with the employers. WAC claims there are employers in Mishor Adumim who have begun giving wage slips and responding to some of their workers’ demands in an effort to prevent them from joining a workers’ organization in the future.
In a conversation with the WAC director, he explained to me that it is not easy physically for activists like him to get to these workplaces to encourage workers to join WAC. “The owners can stop us from entering workplaces they own,” he said. On the other hand, “They can’t stop us from having a direct connection with the workers outside the workplace premises or via Facebook. It’s also hard to persuade the workers to join us. Only when the exploitation becomes unbearable do some of them do so and try to persuade their comrades to join. When at least one-third of the workers join WAC, we can represent them legally.”
More than 30,000 Palestinian workers are employed at the settlements in the West Bank. Since 1967, they have not been defended by any union, and in this area there is no official oversight of their employers by the Israeli Labor Ministry. For decades the workers toiled without their basic rights, because they were afraid of losing their jobs. High unemployment and low wages in the towns and villages under the jurisdiction of the Palestinian Authority made them accept the exploitation in the settlements without a murmur.
The conversations I had with Mohammed, Osama, Ghazi, Hatem and other workers made me realize a change is taking place. Today more and more workers are overcoming the fear of their employer. WAC, in defending workers and encouraging them to demand their rights, is playing an important role in this process.
- Sa’id Al Ghazali is a journalist from Jerusalem who has been covering the Palestinian struggle since the 1980’s. His article was published in Arabic on the Bokra website. https://www.bokra.net/ – It was translated into Hebrew by Yuval Avraham.
- Translated into English from the Hebrew by Yonatan Preminger