Rafat and the Unemployed Workers Federation

12/5

Today Mohammed invited us for coffee at the home of some of his friends in Rafat village, outside Ramallah. Rafat is only 100 meters from an Israeli military base and the infamous Ofar prison. The people that we met with were all unemployed or partially employed, suffering from the depleted job market that followed the second intifada of 2002.

We met with Waheeb Hamin, his five children, Waheeb's father Ameen Hamin, and Anwar Bahin. Both Waheeb and Ameen have been unemployed for nearly a decade, Waheeb because of the second intifada and Hamin because of injury. Before the second intifada, when West Bank and Gaza residents were able to legally work inside Israel, Waheeb was working as a maintenance man inside a Jerusalem hotel. Following the second intifada, over 250,000 Palestinian workers within Israel (some with work permits, others working "illegally") were fired and banished from working inside the green line. As a result, Waheeb was forced to switch professions and became a house painter. But because of the poor job market in the West Bank, work is hard to find especially in winter.

The job market in the occupied territories is depressed by several factors: checkpoints inhibit workers from traveling freely; restrictions on imported and exported goods prevent businesses from growing; the resulting poverty and lack of fully developed infrastructure make it hard for new businesses to get off the ground; the apartheid wall, the settlements, and artificially inflated water prices make farming (which had once been the predominant industry) almost impossible to profit from—Israel has stolen 75 dunams (1 dunam = 1000 square meters) of land from the family we met with to build the apartheid wall. Additionally, the high unemployment rate in the West Bank floods the job market, causing a decrease in the average wage rate. For example, in Ramallah, single workers from Hebron, Nablus and elsewhere are willing to work for much less than a living wage. As a result it is extremely difficult for people like Waheeb Hamin to find work that can support their families.

Waheeb, Ameen, and Anwar are all members of the Unemployed Workers Federation (UWF), a branch of the Independent Federation of Democratic Unions in Palestine. The UWF is comprised of local committees in West Bank cities and villages. Its main goals are to expand unemployment benefits (such as healthcare, free education for children, and monetary compensation) via pressure on the Palestinian Authority. The UWF also promotes local projects organized by unemployed workers, and supports these projects by finding sources of funding. For example, in Rafat members of the unemployed community are planning to build a chicken farm, which they estimate will provide five or six jobs.

In the West Bank, unemployed workers are entitled to free healthcare, free education for their children, and a share of the money and food collected for them from other Arab as well as some European countries. But these measures, enacted by Yasser Arafat and reaffirmed by Abbas , are not adequate. The “free healthcare” does not cover costly procedures, merely covering clinic visits and the like. Arafat promised to create 300,000 jobs per year, but so far this has yet to happen. The Labor Ministry cites its lack of funds due to the unfulfilled promises of other Arab countries to give millions in aid to Palestine. Today more than 200,000 workers are unemployed in the West Bank. UWF has about 11,000 members, and admits that it lacks the adequate resource to accommodate many more.

Israel has started to "import" workers from Asia to fill the gaps left by Palestinians unable to cross the border. These workers live and work in conditions nearly identical to slavery One anecdote that Mohammed related to us is of a Sri Lankan woman working within Israel. She has been working as a maid for an Israeli family for the last twelve years, on a work visa she bought from the Israeli government. Unable to return to her family in Sri Lanka (to whom she sends her income), this woman is forced to work 15 hour days with no rights and no days off. He offered her the number of an Israeli lawyer who could explain her rights to her, but in order to leave her job site she needs permission from her employers. This is just one example of the harsh realities of imported labor within Israel.

The people we met with in Rafat feel that a central issue is the political domination of right-wing ideologies in the U.S., Israel, and parts of the occupied territories. They have many Jewish Israeli and American friends, and feel that their governments are working against peace and justice. Ameen summarized his position on the U.S.: “George Washington took his freedom from the British, we are waiting for a new George Washington to take his freedom from the Zionists.”

“We don't have democratic governments in the Arab World, but here we hope that we have a democratic government so we can all live together, Jews Muslims and Christians. Enough war, enough blood, enough suffering.”

Waheeb, who has relatives in Texas plans to visit the US in March, and Mohammed would like to accompany him and make a tour of the US on behalf of the Federation. We pledged to help arrange this, and set up speaking engagements while they are there.

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