by Sarah Irving, The Electronic Intifada, 24 July 2010
Every June, the International Trade Union Confederation (ITUC) releases its Annual Survey of Violations of Trade Union Rights. According to a press release that accompanied the 2010 publication (which reports on events in 2009), “the Middle East remains among the regions of the world where union rights are least protected.” The report describes repression meted out to Palestinian workers and trade unionists by both the Israeli authorities and the Palestinian factions. But ITUC’s omissions and brevity both disguise the complexity of life for Palestinian workers, and reveal some of the union confederation’s own biases.
The most violent repression of Palestinian trade union activities came, as in previous years, from the Israeli military. A May Day march of around 250 persons in Bethlehem was stopped by Israeli soldiers who fired sound grenades and tear gas canisters directly into the crowd, injuring demonstrators. Three workers and a journalist were arrested, according to the ITUC. Another march, in East Jerusalem, which was deliberately kept low-key by its organizers from the Palestinian General Federation of Trade Unions was also broken up. And in July of last year, Israeli soldiers surrounded and raided the Biddya home of Palestinian Workers Union head and Fatah campaigner Yasser Taha, detaining him for questioning as a “wanted activist.”
Among other events outlined in the 2010 Survey was the strike held by 16,000 workers with UNRWA, the UN agency for Palestine refugees and one of the largest employers in the occupied West Bank and Gaza Strip, calling for the reinstatement of 312 West Bank colleagues fired for violating the organization’s “non-partisan” policy. UNRWA workers also went on strike to demand pay increases in line with Palestinian Authority (PA) staff and UN employees elsewhere in the world. Public sector workers in both the West Bank and Gaza had multiple disputes with both the PA and Hamas authorities over late payment of wages, mainly due to Israel’s withholding of revenues owed.
In September 2009, rising tensions between the PA and transport, education and health unions over late payment of overtime and transport costs culminated in the Health Ministry sacking Osama al-Najjar, head of the health professionals union, and a colleague. Al-Najjar had publicly accused the Ministry of “targeting union activities” and avoiding dialogue. During a radio interview, PA Health Minister Fathi Abu Moghli referred to the ensuing strike by health workers as “illegal.” Union leaders demanded an urgent meeting with appointed PA Prime Minister Salam Fayyad.