Israel’s Unionized Labour Recognizes No Borders

Over 7,000 Palestinians join Israel’s top Trade Union

By David E. Kaplan

Long before Israel emerged as a country in 1948, it’s labour got organised. Established in December 1920 during  Mandatory Palestine, the Histadrut – or the General Organization of Workers in Israel – represents today the majority of trade unionists WITHIN the State of Israel.

However, this summer something quite extraordinary occurred.

It’s most unusual in any country for foreign workers to enjoy equal workers’ rights but Israel is responding with its national trade union  – the Histadrut – not merely accepting but recruiting Palestinian members who live not in Israel, but within the PA controlled West Bank. Resulting from the recruitment campaign, over 7000 Palestinians who enter Israel every morning to work, have joined.

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A New Dawn. Early morning enthusiasm amongst Palestinian workers in Israel to learn from Histadrut activists the benefits of becoming members of the Israeli trade union. (Photo: Daud Daud)

The message of Nihad Sharkiya, who headed the campaign, resonated:

A worker is a worker, no matter where he comes from, and he deserves his rights

A Gulf Apart

This is a far cry from those who reflexively point the proverbial finger at Israel. Take the Gulf  region for instance who are quick to support the Palestinians in theory but according to Amnesty International, ensure that Palestinians in particular, as well as Yemenis, suffer harsh working conditions. They are not alone. Foreign workers from Southeast and East Asia also encounter constant obstacles.

Possibly the most suffering are migrant female workers. Some 60% of non-Kuwaiti women are maids who are not covered by the social insurance and financial benefit provisions of the Kuwaiti Labour Code.

The allure of the Gulf frequently translates dreams into nightmares.

As one newspaper revealingly sited that “Dubai, with its artificial islands, megamalls and seven-star hotels, along with Qatar’s new World Cup stadiums have only been possible due to years of graft by cheap foreign labor, imported mostly from Asia and Africa.”

The promise of much higher wages than at home, seldom materializes. What usually plays out are that low and unskilled migrants often end up trapped for years in their host countries, indebted, exploited and forced to work long hours in hazardous or brutally hot conditions.

Another Way

The outreach by Israel’s Histadrut reflects the lyrics of “There Must Be Another Way” – a song by Jewish-Israeli Achinoam Nini and Arab-Israeli Mira Arad which they performed at the 2009 Eurovision Song Contest. Their message was a simple call to respect the humanity of others.

Over the course of ten days in mid-July 2019, Arabic speaking representatives of the Histadrut met with Palestinian workers at the border crossings, offering advice and handing out pamphlets containing detailed information about workers’ rights in Israel. The Palestinian workers received advice and instruction from the representatives on issues like wages, pensions, safety and welfare, as well as an invitation to contact the Arabic language union hotline. As reported in the Histadrut’s online publication Davar, “The Arabic language hotline was set by the Histadrut to offer guidance to Palestinian workers in Israel, who often speak very little Hebrew.”

It reported a spike in calls following the outreach.

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Operation Outreach. Histadrut unionisation campaign with Palestinian construction workers at Palestinian-Israel border crossing. (Photo: Tal Burstein)

Wahil Abady, who heads the Arabic language information center for the Histadrut, told Davar that the Palestinian workers were excited about the campaign as reflected in the large number that signed up for membership. “These people need someone to take care of the problems they face at the workplace. We never dreamt of such high numbers. We were receiving so many questions that we had to open a special Arabic telephone line for them. In one month,  we received more calls than we got all of last year.”

Approximately 80,000 Palestinian workers cross the border into Israel every day. There, to meet them at the border crossings on their way into Israel before sunrise were the Histadrut activists. “Our people were spread across ten of the border crossings, and over the course of ten days they got to speak to about 15,000 workers coming in from the Palestinian Territories,” said Tal Burstein who took charge of the campaign. “The responses we got from the workers were amazing. We gathered a huge amount of information about breaching of labor laws and various other problems that the Palestinian workers face in Israel. We’re dealing with a very serious problem,” he said.

The relatively high wages and tight restrictions imposed by the Israeli authorities make the visas issued to Palestinian workers a rare asset in the Palestinian Territories. For security reasons, Israeli authorities issue visas mostly to older, married men with families back home who are deemed less likely to participate in terrorist attacks.

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Enlightened Engagement. Important questions and detailed answers characterised the exchanges at this border crossing between these Palestinian workers and the officials from the Histadrut. (Photo: Tal Burstein)

Notably, the Palestinian Authority provides no pension scheme. This means that often the wages paid to a Palestinian working in Israel will go towards supporting his parents and his wife’s parents, on top of his own family in the West Bank.

The problems for Palestinians are numerous but not unusual.

Why did Jewish workers need a trade union nearly 30 years before a state emerged in 1948? To avoid exploitation of course – of one description or another?

Well it is no different for Palestinians and being foreigners, they’re invariably vulnerable.

The problems may range from not getting sick leave to not even getting holidays off. “Every time the work stops, for whatever reason,” says Burstein, “the Palestinian workers are the first to pay the price”.

Mostly involved in the construction industry, these workers are under the radar of most Israelis. “These workers are completely invisible,” says Amihai Satinger, head of the unionization division of the Histadrut, who played a major role in the Palestinian project.

As far as many  employers are concerned “they are totally replaceable. When one of them goes another comes along.”

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Inspiring Leadership. Histadrut union representative Nihad Sharkiya, who led the unionisation campaign amongst Palestinian workers (Photo: Tal Burstein)

Contra South Africa – a “Time Bomb”

If the foreign workers in Israel are “invisible”, back to my native South Africa, they are too “visible”  resulting in resentment and subject to horrendous violence.

The recent outbreak of xenophobia, says  local community organiser Papi Papi – pointing across the road to a new informal settlement of over 100 metal shacks crowded onto a small patch of wasteland – “Is a time bomb.” He describes the death of a Zimbabwean man during the unrest,  who was “caught in his car and then burned alive.”

I found the nature of the problem is South Africa tragically exposed by a group of men playing a game of Ludo on a scrap of cardboard.

“I’m not xenophobic,” insisted a man who gave his first name as Alfred. “But these foreigners are prepared to work for less.”

“They work for small money,” his friend Frederick agreed. “And they hire their own, so it’s hard for us to compete. There is frustration.”

These unemployed “political scientists” wasting away their time playing Ludo, articulate a not too infrequent scenario resulting in the death of foreign workers and the destruction of their property!

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Xenophobia In South Africa. More than 120 Nigerians have lost their lives to gruesome killings in South Africa since 2016 – two stabbed to death in this photo above. South African citizens continue to make their country a dangerous place for foreigners.

How do South Africa’s trade unions respond?

The country’s two biggest trade union federations, Cosatu and the newly formed South African Federation of Trade Unions (SAFTU), have basically given the thumbs up on restricting foreign workers.

Despite the alarming climate of xenophobia, the labour movements are significantly silent.

“The way we treat African foreign nationals is our own fault, starting with the government and ending with ordinary citizens,” writes South African journalist Shaazia Ebrahim in his article  “South Africans need to face some harsh truths”.

While lauded the world over for their peaceful defeat of Apartheid and progressive constitution, South Africans are not nearly as beloved on the African continent itself.

A continent away to the north, the Histadrut in Israel went all out  during the campaign to hear and record the stories from the Palestinian workers. Said Burstein:

“They know about the Histadrut, and most of them have been in touch with us in the past. They know us because the Histadrut fought to apply Israeli labour laws to Palestinians working in Israel a few years ago. That made a big difference.”

Countering BDS Obstructionism

As a humanitarian issue, Palestinians working in Israel have long been a cause for concern for Israeli trade unions. This is evident as Gary Kaplan, an officer of the Histadrut’s International Relations Division explains: “the Histadrut represents Palestinians working in Israel – predominantly in the construction industry –  regardless of whether they are members. These construction workers earn and receive what is part of the Construction Sector Collective Agreement regardless of membership. This is unique to Israel. However, now as members, they will be entitled to free legal advice when required.” As part of the campaign, the Histadrut promoted awareness of Palestinian workers rights by advertising in Palestinian newspapers as well as placing in city centers across the West Bank.

Despite the overwhelming positive response from Palestinian workers recognizing how their lives as workers would improve, the Palestinian Journalist Syndicate warned several media outlets “not to publish any material by the Histadrut,” and predictably, the BDS movement joined in those negative efforts.

Nevertheless, the Histadrut persevered.

Peter Lerner, Director General of the International Relations Division at Histadrut, revealed to the media that the Histadrut works in close coordination with the Palestinian General Federation of Trade Unions (PGFTU).

Noting the complex and challenging political reality, Lerner explained  that “this collaboration is based on long term understandings,” providing “an island of stability.” Although “every act on our side creates some kind of opposition on the Palestinian side, we focus on what’s good for the workers in Israel, whether they’re Israeli, Palestinians or foreign workers.”

Encouraged that  so many thousands of new workers are joining the union proves that “unionized labor recognizes no borders.”

One thought on “Israel’s Unionized Labour Recognizes No Borders

  1. This article surprised and pleased me – being one of those few left who believe in organised labour and in Israel’s Histadrut, i enjoyed learning of this outreach to Palestinian workers. I had not heard of this until reading your article. Great job!

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