A Palestinian Labor Leader Speaks Out

Interview with Mohammed Saleh Aruri

Alex Hogan

This article is from the May/June 2003 issue of Dollars and Sense: The Magazine of Economic Justice available at http://www.dollarsandsense.org

issue 247 cover

This article is from the May/June 2003 issue of Dollars & Sense magazine.

Subscribe Now

at a discount.

In the three years since the current intifada, or uprising, began, the already-fragile Palestinian economy has nearly broken down. Under military and economic siege, entire economic sectors have collapsed. Unemployment runs well over 50%, with 411,000 people out of work. Almost half of the population lives on less than $2 a day, and food shortages have struck certain areas. The besieged and directionless Palestinian Authority (PA) appears unable to meet the staggering crisis.

In this context, the Palestine General Federation of Trade Unions (PGFTU) is focused on the literal survival of its members and their families. As one of the largest nongovernmental organizations in Palestine, the PGFTU is responding to the mass deprivation by stepping into a role previously fulfilled by the PA: providing an economic and social safety net for its members. The federation delivers unemployment and health insurance benefits to tens of thousands.

PGFTU also continues its long-term struggle to build a movement for workers' rights in Palestine, and recently succeeded in pushing the PA to establish a set of working labor laws. With 500,000 public and private worker-members in the West Bank and Gaza strip, PGFTU represents 75% of the Palestinian workforce. That's a unionization level most unions in the West would envy. But its members have faced conditions that no one would envy.

Since the beginning of the occupation following the 1967 war, Palestinian labor played a role in the Israeli economy roughly similar to that played by Mexican labor in California. Palestinian territories provided a supply of low-wage labor for Israeli employers. Like many Mexican immigrant workers in the United States, Palestinians who work in Israel lacked basic rights and government protections once they crossed the border. They constituted the most easily exploited and expendable segment of the Israeli labor force.

On and off throughout these decades, prior to the closure of the border three years ago, thousands of Palestinians would spend up to five hours a day in checkpoints in order to find work as day laborers in Israel in construction, agriculture, and service industries. Before 2000, 40% of all employed Palestinians worked in Israel. Work was usually temporary, with a high dismissal rate. Palestinians working in Israel were taxed up to 20% of their salary, despite being ineligible for most Israeli government benefits. Exorbitant court fees prevented most Palestinians from bringing charges against their employers.

Since the 1993 Oslo Accord between Israel and the Palestine Liberation Organization (PLO), efforts to strengthen the Palestinian economy have been undercut by both Israeli restrictions and reoccupation and by the corruption of the Palestinian Authority bureaucracy. The PA's favoritism and nepotism, particularly its practice of building monopolies (both state-owned and private) run by a handful of Yasir Arafat's close associates, have stunted economic development. Further, the Palestinian economy suffers from stringent Israeli tax policy and the theft of Palestinian natural resources, including water, by settlers.

Also see "The Mercurial Economics of the "Phantom Palestinian State" in the January/February 2002 issue of Dollars & Sense

Israel's periodic closures—or the shutting down of borders between Israel and the Palestinian Territories—have devastated sectors that rely heavily on trade with Israel. Since 1993, closures cost Palestinian agriculture and building industries over $2 billion. Most of all, the closures have devastated people's capacity to earn even a meager living.

In addition to the economic siege, the PGFTU is subject to the intense level of violence and repression faced by all popular organizations in Palestine since the reoccupation. On March 7, 2002, Israeli jets bombed PGFTU headquarters, destroying it, and prompting a letter of condemnation to Israeli Prime Minister Ariel Sharon from the International Confederation of Free Trade Unions. Amazingly, no one was killed. Constant curfews and military checkpoints have made it extremely difficult to organize even local branch meetings. And as an independent union, the PGFTU is often in conflict with the PA over workers' rights, in particular over labor legislation and the rights of public workers whose unions are tightly controlled by the PA.

Over the last few years, the PGFTU has been engaged in an aggressive effort to build international labor solidarity to keep this struggling union going. The union recently unveiled a multifaceted strategic plan that aims to build union-wide democratic elections, reestablish the union's administrative infrastructure, and provide training for members. PGFTU leaders have toured Europe and Asia, visiting with unions to describe their plans and present their case. In the United Kingdom, they helped members of the Trade Union Congress, the U.K.'s national labor federation, establish a Palestinian-labor solidarity network.

This winter, PGFTU members made their first trip to the United States. The group spoke with labor activists throughout the country. I spoke with Mohammed Saleh Aruri, a member of the PGFTU's Executive Committee, during his stop in Detroit. Mr. Aruri started his work in the labor movement in 1980 when he started a union at a water company in Jerusalem. He served as chairman of his local and was later elected to the council of the PGFTU. In 1996, he was elected to the union federation Executive Committee. Mr. Aruri now works at the PGFTU office in Ramallah.

Q: How has the situation changed for the Palestinian labor movement since the beginning of the intifada over three years ago?

ARURI: Since the beginning of the intifada, the Israeli government has placed Palestinian cities, refugee camps, and villages under siege. The rings of checkpoints permit no one to leave their village, or city, to get to their workplace in Palestine or in Israel.

Palestinian workers who were employed before the intifada at worksites inside Israel have been fired—130,000 workers all together. And more than 150,000 were laid off from their jobs in the occupied territories of the West Bank and Gaza. One reason is that since the intifada, the Israeli army often won't even let workers leave their homes. Also, many factories and worksites have been destroyed in the fighting, and the remaining ones face the problem of getting materials shipped in from outside their city. For example, we can't transport materials to Jenin or Nablus or Gaza because of Israeli checkpoints. So, many of these factories have closed.

More than 65% of Palestinians are living below the poverty line—around 2 million people.

Q: How has the PGFTU dealt with this? How have you organized to deal with the crisis?

ARURI: From the beginning of the intifada, we started an emergency program. We gave out unemployment benefits to workers amounting to $150 each. So far we have doled out benefits to more than 225,000 of our unemployed members. We also gave free health insurance to over 400,000 unemployed members and their families. And we give out emergency food rations.

We are in the process of filing over 100,000 legal cases against Israeli employers for unjust termination of our members.

Q: The laid-off Palestinians have not received any kind of unemployment or other benefits from Israel or the companies they were working for?

ARURI: No. None. We have also filed over 100,000 cases with the Palestinian Authority against Palestinian employers because they have not given any of their workers any kind of unemployment benefits, either.

We have a very big list of unemployed workers waiting for emergency benefits from us because we don't have enough money to help all our unemployed members. We have a limited amount collected from our friends and unions in Arab countries and Europe, but it is not enough.

Q: What is the PGFTU relationship with other political forces and parties, like Fatah?

ARURI: In the PGFTU there are many active unionists from all the parties. On our Executive Committee, we have representatives from six parties: the Fatah movement, the Palestine Democratic Union, the Popular Front for the Liberation of Palestine, the Democratic Front for the Liberation of Palestine, the Palestinian People Party, and the Popular Struggle Front. But only 30% of our members are members of any of the six mentioned parties. The majority of our members are unaffiliated.

Q: What about Hamas?

ARURI: We don't have any members from the Islamic fronts in the leadership of our unions. They had their own unions before the intifada: one in Ramallah and the other in Nablus. But during the intifada [Hamas] closed down their union. Most of their former members have approached us about joining, and many did join, because of our ability to provide vital services as I talked about earlier. Now we represent over three-quarters of the Palestinian workforce.

Q: What kind of organizing force does the PGFTU have?

ARURI: We have a staff of 76, plus hundreds of active members working with us as volunteers. In addition, many university students work closely with us. All our workers' committees in workplaces, factories, villages, and offices work as our organizers.

Q: What is the PGFTU relationship with Histadrut (the National Labor Federation of Israel)?

ARURI: After the Olso agreement, we signed our own agreement with Histadrut in 1995. It stated that Histadrut must return back half of membership dues taken from Palestinian workers who were working in Israel. (All workers who live inside Palestine are considered part of the PGFTU's jurisdiction, whether they are working in Palestine or Israel. Up until 1995, however, Histadrut took membership fees from Palestinian workers.) There were some other items in the agreements, but Histadrut has not as of yet returned all of the money owed to us. With the dire economic situation now in Palestine, we especially need that money to continue to provide needed services to our members. During the intifada, we haven't heard Histadrut's voice against Israeli government policies that hurt our members. Many of our members have been killed and wounded by Israeli soldiers. To give an example, two months ago, Israeli soldiers killed six workers from a village near Hebron because they tried to reach their workplace, a stone factory, just outside their village. Before that, five workers were killed in the morning at a refugee camp near Nablus. On their way to work, soldiers fired at their taxi, killing or wounded all those in the car.

Q: And Histadrut has not said anything about this?

ARURI: Yeah, they have said nothing.

Q: What about other groups in Israel?

ARURI: We have very good relations with some unionists in the Labor Party, and also with activists from the Communist Party, the Democratic Front, and Peace Now. They support the Palestinian right to have an independent state within the pre-1967-war borders.

Q: What do you see as the PGFTU role in the wider struggle for Palestinian self-determination?

ARURI: We struggle along with all our people, political parties, human rights, and peace organizations in Palestine against the last military occupation in the world, Israel's occupation of Palestine. Also, we struggle together all over the world with activists in Europe, Africa, Asia, and North America. We struggle against war in Palestine and we support justice and peace: a comprehensive peace in the Middle East that would allow our people—both Palestinian and Israeli—to live in peace and freedom. We want to let our children build their future in peace and security.

Q: What is the PGFTU's relationship with the Palestinian Authority?

ARURI: We are a nonprofit independent organization. We have our own decision-making processes and finances, independent of any government authority. We support all the Palestinian people and parties, including the PA, in their struggle against Israel's occupation. But we are sometimes against the PA in terms of struggles over labor rights. To give an example, we organized three large demonstrations—before the start of the intifada—against the PA's labor ministry and the Palestinian Legislation Council, to pressure them to take into account our positions on upcoming labor law legislation. We succeeded in getting many of our planks into the law and now we have the first set of labor laws in Palestine.

Q: In documents you sent out, you talk a lot about the PGFTU's strategic plan to democratize the PGFTU. What do you mean by that?

ARURI: According to our strategic plan, we want to have democratic elections at every level throughout our union as soon as possible, once Israel ends their occupation in our cities and removes all tanks and soldiers from our towns and villages. It is very difficult to have elections now because we are under siege. There are many checkpoints, so our members cannot go to meetings or conferences. Our executive committee can't even hold a meeting now. We are in touch by fax and e-mail with our branches, but we are under curfew so we have to communicate from our homes. How can we have an election in this situation?

Q: What do you feel the labor movement in the United States can do to help the labor movement in Palestine?

ARURI: We came here to talk with unionists and peace and human-rights activists about our struggle and to build support for a just peace in the Middle East—a struggle not only for human rights but for workers' rights. We feel that we are members in this big family: the international workers' movement. We are sure that our voice will reach the U.S. workers movement to place pressure on the government to implement the U.N. resolutions numbers 242 and 338, which call for the withdrawal of Israel from the occupied territories. All the people we have met here in the United States are very kind. All have promised to struggle together against war and to develop our relations. They have promised to send labor delegations to Palestine to see the reality of the situation, and to come back and speak with their unions' members about what they witnessed.

Alex Hogan helped organize the Detroit stop of the national PGFTU tour this fall. He lives in Detroit.