Willow Heske

Willow Heske (Democracy and Workers’ Rights Center – DWRC): Willow graduated from Rutgers University-Newark with a BA in history. As the daughter of two union workers, Willow strongly believes that labor organizations play a crucial role in forming modern democracies and that unions can provide an important first step towards socio-economic development. At the time of her fellowship, Willow was pursuing a Master’s degree in International Affairs at Columbia University’s School of International and Public Affairs. Her concentration was on international security policy with a focus on conflict resolution and modern state formation in Africa and the Middle East. She was also studying the Arabic language.


16 Jul

Before the second intifada in 2000, there were 125,000 Palestinians working in Israel. This number reflects over 25% of the entire Palestinian workforce, which currently stands at 700,000.

In 2002, Israeli security concerns reduced the number of Palestinian work permits to 7,532, leaving over 110,000 Palestinians unemployed. Since 2002, the number of work permits issued has depended on the political climate and have gone up and down, though never returning to the natural rate of employment before the intifada. For example, in 2004 the Israeli government issued 33,386 work permits to Palestinians employed in Israel, Israeli controlled industrial zones, and the Israeli settlements, but this number has recently dropped again.

Official estimates for 2008 are not available, but DWRC estimates that it is less than 20,000. Meanwhile, in 2008, Israel granted over 2,000 work permits to Eritrean immigrants alone. On top of this, Palestinians are subjected to special criteria for work permit eligibility. Palestinian men seeking an Israeli work permit need to be aged 35 or over, and must be married with children. No other nationality is subject to these restrictions.

The problem of work permits for Palestinians is exceptionally complicated. On the one hand, Palestinians need to stop relying on the Israeli labor market. But in order to do this, Palestine needs both private and public sector growth, which is complicated by the restrictions on imports and exports. Domestic businesses in Palestine are only sustainable when they are local. Any Palestinian business that has several branches, one in Nablus, one in Gaza, one in Ramallah, and one in Bethlehem will face extraordinary logistical difficulties in both the movement of goods and the movement of their workers. Any company involved in imports and exports will have to be able to incur higher costs, as imports and exports are taxed twice, once by Palestine, once by Israel, thus cutting into profits.

So while I want to see Palestinians less dependent on the Israeli labor market, I realize that it is impossible to break the cycle of dependency until policies hindering the Palestinian economy change. And further complicating the domestic labor market is the fact that Israel needs Palestinian labor. Just last year, the Israeli Association of Contractors and Builders lobbied to increase the number of Palestinian construction workers who have permits to work in Israel by 10,000. They claimed that 5,000 additional workers were needed immediately in order to meet the demand of the Israeli construction boom.

Ironically, the majority of these Palestinian workers would be involved in building the illegal Israeli settlements that are crossing over the green line, taking the land of their families and friends. This is exceptionally problematic, but for many Palestinians there is no choice to be made. The choice to work in the settlements comes in the form of choosing whether to meet your family’s immediate needs, or prolong their suffering. And when I say prolong their suffering I mean that regardless of whether Palestinians take these jobs in the settlements, the settlements will continue to expand. There is no shortage of immigrant labor in Israel. And at this time, there appears to be no reflection on behalf of the Israeli government regarding the international stop work orders issued for the settlements that encroach on the green line.

Moreover, the restrictions on work permits have created a real insecurity for Palestinians, and I don’t just mean in terms of the numbers that are being issued. Palestinians continue to work in Israel, permit or no permit, and Israeli employers continue to hire Palestinian workers, permits or no permits.

This past week a Swedish journalist visited DWRC to get background information for an article he is writing about Palestinians employed in Israeli construction. Its a particularly interesting topic, since construction employs most of the Palestinian workers in Israel. Many Palestinian construction workers who used to work in Israel are unemployed due to the restrictions on work permits. Many try to find local employment, but it doesn’t pay as well and is harder to come by, leaving many workers chronically underemployed. To get a first hand account of what it is like for these workers, we arranged for the journalist to meet with 8 construction workers, half employed legally in Israel, half illegally.

For the legal workers, they complained about routine, on-the-job discrimination, which included receiving unequal pay for the same work as their Israeli counterpart, inadequate benefits, and uneven application of labor laws. For example, Palestinian laborers who work legally in Israel are subjected to Jordanian labor law, even though Palestine has issued its own labor law, and even though immigrant laborers in Israel (from China, Africa, India, and South East Asia) are protected by Israeli labor laws.

Legally employed Palestinian workers must pay Israeli social security taxes and Israeli union dues, even though they receive no social security benefits from Israel and receive no protection from the Histadrut, the Israeli union to which they pay dues. On average, if a payment arrangement isn’t set up through ssa.gov application filing, union fees and social security taxes, are automatically deducted from their monthly wage, equal 28% of their total monthly paycheck. Yet they will never receive these benefits, they will never receive the pension that they have paid into.

Moreover, two of the legally employed workers explained that in regards to Jordanian labor law, Israeli employers often pick and choose what sections of the law they want to apply. Under Jordanian labor law, Friday is the mandatory day off from work, as it is a holy day, but both workers explained that they were expected to work on Fridays, as Israeli labor law and Israeli employers don’t recognize Friday as a holy day. One worker explained that to complain about working on Friday means to lose your job. But to make matters worse, he explained, losing your job can mean losing your permit, as your permit often ends with the contract for your work.

For the illegally employed workers, which are the majority in Israel, things are even worse. The four illegally employed construction workers described their daily trip to work: at 4 AM they arrive at a discreet place close to the Israeli border to meet the smuggler who takes them across the line to Israel. They pay the smuggler 50 NIS, a heavy price when they expect to make anywhere from 150 to 300 NIS that day. The smuggler has a van and they must wait until at least 20 workers show up for the trip, the van doesn’t fit 20 workers, it only fits 10, but they pile in, one on top of the other. There are different smugglers every day, they tell us. Most of the smugglers are Israeli settlers who are routinely waved through the checkpoints due to their special license plates.

They prefer to go with the settlers because it is safer. The other smugglers have to take the back roads, and try to get the trip done as quickly as possible, so they drive 80 or 90 miles an hour on dangerously narrow, mountainous roads.

Once they make it to the Israeli side they make their way to their place of work, where they work for 12 hours, with no social protection, no work injury protection, no occupational health and safety standards, and no breaks. Construction has the highest incident of work injury in the world, and the illegally employed construction workers explained that many workers get injured at their jobs.

What happens to them? Their employers drive them back across the border and dump them on the Palestinian side. There might be a hospital less than 1 mile from their work site, but they can’t go there, the employer cannot risk it and neither can the employee: they are illegal, they have no permission to be on Israeli soil.

Then there is the issue with the pay. Since they are illegal, they are technically day laborers, even if they have worked at the same place for years. They should get paid daily, they need to get paid daily, especially considering they are paying 100 NIS to the smuggler for their roundtrip commute. But too often the employer tells them tomorrow, tomorrow you will get paid.

Tomorrow might not come. The worker may not get to work, something could go wrong, the smuggler might not show up, the border might be closed, or the employer might be gone, along with the wage.

I asked the illegally employed workers if they had to go through the smuggler, if they might not just try walking along the porous sections of the border alone. Yes they said, many do this, but it is sometimes worse. The border police will shoot you. Just last week, they shot dead a 17 year old boy who was crossing to work. If you get caught with the smuggler, one man explained, you may get beaten, arrested, and detained, but at least you will still have your life.

Posted By Willow Heske

Posted Jul 16th, 2014

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