Employer turns Palestinian union organizer into a ‘security threat’

Hatem Abu Ziadeh spent almost 20 years working at an auto repair shop in a West Bank industrial zone. But once he began organizing workers for better conditions, he was fired for ‘security-based reasons.’

Hatem Abu Ziadeh (Photo courtesy of WAC-MAAN)
Hatem Abu Ziadeh (Photo courtesy of WAC-MAAN)

In many respects, this is a painfully simple and well-known story: a veteran factory worker decides to unionize his fellow workers in order to protect their rights. All of a sudden, after many years of work, the employer remembers that the veteran is actually a poor worker who must be fired immediately.

Like in innumerable cases, the employer provides a variety of reasons for the dismissal. The union turns to the labor court, but the wheels of justice turn slowly: more than half a year passes since the end of the hearings, and yet we see no ruling. The worker — whose job was his entire life — sits at home for the past year and a half without being able to make a decent living.

But the case of Hatem Abu Ziadeh is especially complex and dramatic because of its unique context: Abu Ziadeh is a Palestinian worker in a settlement industrial zone. Palestinian workers organizations refuse, on principle, to represent Palestinians who work in settlements, while Israel’s Histadrut labor federation does not unionize Palestinian workers in the occupied territories, turning the industrial zones a kind of “no man’s land” where violations of workers’ rights are commonplace. And this despite the fact that Israeli labor laws apply to these industrial zones (aside from one, where employers can legally discriminate against Palestinian workers).

The union led by Abu Ziadeh, which was organized with the help of Ma’an Workers Advice Center (WAC), is an unprecedented first of its kind attempt to unionize workers who work in this no man’s land — what Ma’an terms “the twilight zone of labor law.” That is exactly why the continued silence of Israel’s Labor Court is so frustrating.

A threat to state security?

Let’s start at the beginning. Hatem Abu Ziadeh, a 45-year-old mechanic and father of six, is a Palestinian subject of Israel’s military regime in the occupied territories. He lives in a village near Nablus, and has driven to the Zarfati Garage in the Mishor Adumim Industrial Zone — a drive of at least two hours a day — where he has worked every day for the past 17 years. Not a single complaint has been filed against him all these years.

According to Abu Ziadeh and Ma’an, the employment policies were especially harmful, leading the workers there to unionize at the end of 2013. According to the union, it took time until the management agreed to sit down with them to negotiate. Once the scope of the demands became clear, the management decided to take down the union.

Employees at the Zarfati Garage in Mishur Adumim vote to strike on July 22, 2014. (Photo courtesy of Ma’an workers union)
Employees at the Zarfati Garage in Mishor Adumim vote to strike on July 22, 2014. (Photo courtesy of Ma’an workers union)

In July 2014, the management found a golden opportunity: while war was raging in Gaza, during a wave of dismissals of Arab workers across Israel, Zarfati fired Abu Ziadeh. At first, the management argued that he had a truancy and disciplinary problems at work. However, after Ma’an turned to the labor court, the management came up with a new reason: Abu Ziadeh was fired for “security-based” reasons. Which reasons? The management claimed that Abu Ziadeh had purposefully sabotaged an IDF vehicle that had been brought in to the shop, and therefore tried to put soldiers’ lives in danger during wartime.

Although the claim was first heard at the Labor Court in Jerusalem, the court decided that the issue was critical and needed thorough examination. The employer went to the police, and it took four months until both they and the State Attorney realized that there was no foundation for the indictment, and promptly closed the case. During this time, the army revoked Abu Ziadeh entry permit to the industrial zone (the IDF automatically revokes entry permit to anyone suspected of security-related offenses, even if they were fabricated by the employer). This is how the union leader was removed from the area near the shop.

Time went on. The summaries of the case at the Jerusalem Labor Court were submitted in July 2015. That was seven months ago, and yet we still have no ruling. Ma’an’s attorneys — Aya Bernatein, Amir Basha, and Moran Saborai (full disclosure: Basha and Saborai represent the Journalists’ Union in its continual court proceedings vis-a-vis my illegal dismissal from Ma’ariv) — submitted three requests to hand down a verdict. Every request was met with a response that a ruling would be handed down “soon.” In response to my inquiry, the courts said “the ruling will be handed down soon.”

‘The workers are waiting for me’

Meanwhile, Abu Ziadeh is trying to make a living as a taxi driver in the West Bank, making 40-50 shekels a day, which does not allow him to sustain himself or his family. Beyond the harm caused to him, the delayed ruling harms the workers in the shop. “Every day that the union chairman is not on the job creates a fait accompli that the union can be broken,” says Ma’an head Assaf Adiv.

“If there was a justification for the dismissal — fine. Let the court decide. But delaying the verdict makes it increasingly hard to create a reality where a union can exist, in fact it prevents it. There have been no negotiations since July 2014. The workers are worried that they do not have their chairman, and we are unable to create proper work relations. It is clear that a decision to return the chairman is cardinal here.”

WATCH: Abu Ziadeh organizes workers at Zarfati Garage

“Time goes on and we hear nothing from the court,” says a despairing Abu Ziadeh. “I do not know what to do with the children. I have no way to pay for food or drink, and the court does not understand this. There are also problems at the garage. Workers are calling me with problems about their pay slips, the lack of equipment, taking away vacation or sick days. I am the chairman but I cannot speak with the owners or solve the problems. And yet, I hope to return. I have worked there nearly 20 years and all the workers are waiting for me to come back.”

Reading through the summaries Zarfati submitted to the Jerusalem District Court, it is clear that the employer has no case. The company begins by arguing that because Abu Ziadeh hasn’t worked there for a year and a half and makes a living as a taxi driver, there is no reason to bring him back. As if this was not a result his dismissal and the lack of a court ruling. The employers add that his entry permit to the industrial zone was revoked for several months for security reasons — the same revocation that stemmed from the employer’s complaint, which turned out to be unjustified.

Zarfati also quotes parts of the ruling in a previous round of legal proceedings that were nullified by the court, and accuses Ma’an of being an illegitimate, political workers’ association — arguments that had already been rejected by the Israeli Labor Court, and thus cannot be accepted by the District Court.

Even if the all the employer’s claims are baseless, and even if it is not unfounded to assume that Abu Ziadeh will eventually return to work — and even if he receives retroactive payment — the employer still won. He won by sending a message to all the workers, that anyone who tries to organize them will pay a high price, lose his livelihood and will barely be able to feed his children. The employer won by gaining over a year and a half of quiet, without Abu Ziadeh or organized workers.

The response to these situations must be simple: over the past few years, court rulings have created legal protections for the first stages of unionizing prior to signing a collective agreement. Furthermore it was established that if one of the members is fired during the organizing stage, the employer must prove that the dismissal was legal, and the court tends to side with the workers in these cases.

The courts must take this one step further: they must establish that a worker must be able to return to work during legal proceedings. If the assumption is that the worker was illegally fired, the dismissal must temporarily be rescinded in order to protect both the worker in question as well as the union, at least until the employer can prove otherwise.

This should have been the case with Hatem Abu Ziadeh, the pioneer of Palestinian unionizing in the settlement industrial zones. At the very least, the court must deliver a verdict and let him return to work.

This article was first published in Hebrew on Local Call. Read it here.

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