How to stop Palestinians unionizing: Security, security, security

When Palestinian workers at the Tzarfati garage in the West Bank settlement of Mishor Adumim unionized, management made up criminal accusations against the Palestinian chairman of the workers’ committee, exploiting the hostile war-time environment at the time. Management brought in the army, the police, and sent him to military court — resulting in the revocation of his work permit.

By Niv Hachlili / ‘The Hottest Place in Hell

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

It’s seven o’clock on a Thursday evening and Hatem Abu Ziadeh sits behind the wheel of the taxi he drives to support his family. He’s been on the go since early morning, ferrying passengers on the winding roads between Ramallah and the surrounding villages.

Abu Ziadeh is from Jibiya, a village near Bir Zeit, and is the proud father of four sons and two daughters. For 17 years he was employed as a mechanic at the Tzarfati garage in the Mishor Adumim industrial zone. But last summer he was dismissed following a unionizing drive which he led together with the independent Trade Union Center WAC-MAAN.

Ostensibly, this is just another story, becoming increasingly common, of workers standing up and demanding their legal rights. However, unlike organizing initiatives within the “Green Line”, the fact that this case involves Palestinian workers employed in a Jewish settlement means it has unique characteristics.

A particularly worrying aspect of Abu Ziadeh’s story is not the ease with which the employer violates labor laws and the rights of Palestinian workers – such cases are commonplace. What makes this case important is the way it exposes how official state bodies grant assistance, both direct and indirect, to employers who violate employees’ basic rights.

Why are you raking up the past?

The organizing at Tzarfati began in June 2013. Some 40 Palestinians joined WAC-MAAN and a letter in their name was sent to the employer, asking that a general workers’ assembly be held. In July of that year, elections were held for the workers’ committee, and Abu Ziadeh, who had been instrumental in the unionizing efforts, was elected as chair.

“Before the organizing,” Abu Ziadeh said, “Tzarfati did whatever he felt like. He said we were employed according to Jordanian law, and that he wasn’t obliged to pay us minimum wage. People would get 3,000 shekels a month, without vacations, without pension contributions, without national insurance, nothing. Sometimes for example there would be accidents on the job which meant some workers couldn’t work for whole days, even weeks. But nobody paid them for the days they lay in hospital or at home. Only when Tzarfati understood we were organizing and that he was being watched – suddenly things changed.”

In a decision from December 2014, the regional labor court stated explicitly that from July 2013 WAC-MAAN and the committee members had been in contact with the garage management, and that “nobody can deny that during that year of talks changes were made to the wages and employment terms of the workers of the respondent [Tzarfati garage – N.H.], including updating the workers’ wages and transport payments, and settling bereavement, vacation, sickness, religious holidays and training payments. Wage slips were issued, and more.”

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 Mishur Adumim vote to strike on July 22, 2014. (Photo courtesy of Ma’an workers union)

The court also emphasized that it was not convinced by Tzarfati’s claim that he had acted to promote his workers’ rights regardless of WAC-MAAN’s activities. The court noted that both sides agree that they had held talks during that year, and this had led to Tzarfati’s concern over applicable laws. As the court put it, “The respondent’s claim that the improvement in employment terms had no connection with the claimant’s demands [i.e., the demands of WAC-MAAN – N.H.] does not sit well with the facts.”

To be given minimum wage with a legal wage slip after years of employment was indeed an achievement for the workers, but regarding other fundamental issues the garage refused to seek a solution.

Tzarfati claims it is now doing everything according to the law,” said WAC-MAAN’s National Director Assaf Adiv, “but as soon as the pay of non-skilled workers was raised to minimum wage, a third of the workers who had organized, including skilled workers, still received the same minimum wage. Then another question arose regarding the wage that should be paid according to the collective agreement signed by the Israel Garage Association, of which Tzarfati claims it is a member. The Association has an agreement which determines wage scale, levels of professionalism, wage increases, and seniority. All the things Tzarfati didn’t deal with.”

However, the main point of contention concerns past debts. A large number of the workers have been employed at the garage for a long time, some more than 20 years, but minimum wage and other benefits determined by law have been paid only since 2013, without reference to past years in which they were not paid. Such behavior appears in an even more serious light considering that Tzarfati was one of the respondents in the 2007 High Court case (the “Givat-Zeev” case). This ruling determined that Israeli labor law is applicable to Palestinians employed in settlements, and that they are entitled to minimum wage and peripheral benefits in keeping with Israeli labor law. Despite this, between 2007 and 2013, the garage ignored the court ruling and continued to avoid paying minimum wage and other benefits.

No enforcement

This raises another more worrying question, with far-reaching implications, concerning the tens of thousands of Palestinians employed by Israelis in terrible and sometimes dangerous conditions, as Idan Landau described in a report for “Hamakom” on the Nitzanei Shalom industrial zone. Why did the authorities not intervene to enforce the law and deal with violations? This is not just an issue that concerns the Regulation and Enforcement Administration of the Economics Ministry, but also falls within the responsibility of the Population and Immigration Authority.

In theory, inspectors from the Regulation and Enforcement Administration are supposed to ensure that workers received their rights. In addition, because the employment of Palestinians is subject to registration and work permits, the Payments Division of the Interior Ministry’s Population and Immigration Authority is responsible for “regulating the employment of Palestinian workers including collecting and paying wages and peripheral benefits.” However, nothing was done for the workers, who for many years had put in six days a week for some 3,000 shekels per month without protection in case of on-the-job accidents or illness.

Even today, years after the High Court ruling, the Justice Ministry is struggling to “diminish the disparities in the field of labor law between workers from the Judea and Samaria region [the West Bank] and workers in Israel, in the framework of security legislation.”

The Economics Ministry explained in response that “The High Court Givat-Zeev case [the 2007 ruling] created a cause of action for a Palestinian worker to submit claims against his Israeli employer. However, it did not grant enforcement authority; it did not rule in favor of the sweeping application of aspects of labor law which are criminal or grant enforcement authority – not even the authority to impose monetary sanctions… The disparity this creates is indeed a distortion. This distortion is one of the reasons why the government and army are making increased efforts to apply all labor law to these areas, through security legislation applicable to Judea and Samaria. This work [legislation] is prepared and almost completed, but the upcoming elections have delayed it. Its completion and the signing of an order will be done, it seems, when the new government has been formed.”

What the official bodies are actually saying is that no decision on this issue has been made by the government. Even if a decision will be taken, it is not clear how it will change the current situation in which there is ostensibly minimal protection for workers (in the form of the minimum wage) but in practice there is no enforcement.

There’s a war? Fire him

Meanwhile, negotiations between the workers and the Zarfati garage proceeded at snail’s pace. About once every two months the sides met, and the workers, together with WAC-MAAN representatives, tried to reach an understanding on wage issues and past debts.

Then last July, Operation Protective Edge began and Zarfati decided the time had come to dismiss Abu Ziadeh and step up the pressure on the workers.

On July 21, Abu Ziadeh – who during 17 years of working at the garage had never had any claims leveled against him, whether security-related or work-related – was summoned for pre-dismissal hearings. In the letter he received, the reason given for the hearing was “changes to the firm’s employment set-up and your unsuitability to the firm’s needs.” WAC-MAAN quickly submitted an appeal at the labor court against the dismissal of the workers’ committee chair.

Abu Ziadeh displays his summons. (Courtesy of WAC-MAAN)
Abu Ziadeh displays his summons. (Courtesy of WAC-MAAN)

In the court hearing held a week later (on July 27), the garage owner, Morris Tzarfati, made completely new claims against Abu Ziadeh which were quite marvelously in keeping with the public mood during the days of war. Tzarfati told the court that the dismissal decision was taken because Abu Ziadeh had “participated in political demonstrations, he is an extreme leftwing activist who called for the end of the Israeli occupation, threatened other workers” and even “sabotaged a military vehicle which was being repaired at the garage” some two weeks earlier.

Since Tzarfati’s claims were not supported by any documentation and were not referred to in the letter summoning him to the dismissal hearing, but were raised out of the blue in court, the judge granted Tzarfati 72 hours to come up with evidence for his claims, and ruled that if no such evidence were forthcoming the garage would have to hold a hearing as required by law. The appeal submitted to the High Court claimed that “Contrary to what they said during the court proceedings, the Tzarfati managers did not contact the security services,” and noted that it was only a day after the court hearing that the garage manager submitted a complaint with the Maaleh Adumim police against Abu Ziadeh, which included the accusations that they had raised at court.

The complaint to the police led to a snowballing bureaucratic process. Three days later Abu Ziadeh came to the Maaleh Adumim police station, at their request, to be questioned. He told the investigator that he had worked for 17 years at the garage and had never had any complaints leveled against him, and that these accusations had been fabricated by the garage management. At the end of the questioning, he was told to deposit 1000 shekels as guarantee; he was summoned to a hearing at the Ofer military court, near Ramallah, in April 2015, and his work permit was confiscated.

This compelled WAC-MAAN to wage a struggle on two fronts – one in the labor court with assistance from lawyers with expertise in such cases, and another with the police and the Civil Administration, with assistance from other lawyers, in order to fend off the accusations and enable Abu Ziadeh to retrieve his work permit.

The appeal submitted by Atty. Moran Savurai, who is representing WAC-MAAN in this case, noted that “it is important to emphasize that apart from the accusation of sabotage of a military vehicle, about which a complaint was filed with the police, with no evidence at all, regarding the other accusations about political activity in support of Palestine and waving a Palestinian flag – which, by the way, are not violations of the law – no evidence has been submitted during either of the employer’s declarations at court or during the court summary.”

In parallel to the labor court case, in September 2014, Atty. Michal Pomerantz (from the Smadar Ben Natan law offices) submitted a request to the High Court to return Abu Ziadeh’s work permit. In the appeal, Pomerantz describes in detail her correspondence with the legal advisor for Judea and Samaria, the head of the Maaleh Adumim police station, and representatives of the Civil Administration between July and September 2014, in an attempt to try every possibility to get back the work permit and avoid the need to turn to the court – but all in vain.

On November 30, four months after Abu Ziadeh’s permit was confiscated and he lost his livelihood, the State Attorney’s office sent a laconic reply: “Following up on our conversation of 27 Nov. 2014, I wish to inform you that according to what the respondents have told me, the reason for the temporary suspension of the claimant [Hatem Abu Ziadeh] from entering Israeli settlements in Judea and Samaria for work purposes has been removed.” In other words, from now on, there is no reason why the employer should not get a work permit for Abu Ziadeh.

Ten days later, a notice from the police was received, saying the file against Abu Ziadeh had been closed since no evidence had been found to try him. The appeal to the High Court had thus compelled the authorities to come up with answers, but Pomerantz explains that the time taken by the authorities to determine the untruth of the claims was problematic: “Even in this there is a deterrent message to workers: that even if the security issue is removed, they may find themselves unemployed for months. In other words, this too is a significant threat against the workers.”

Morris Tzarfati refused to talk to us or answer our questions, saying only, “I don’t want to address this issue in the media. It is being dealt with at court. I prefer to do so there.”

Mobilize the ordnance officer

In addition to the submission of the complaint, police officers from Maaleh Adumim came to the garage in August, brought the workers into the manager’s room, and interrogated them as to whether “someone from the workers’ committee had threatened them.”

The appeal to the High Court noted the dubious legality of this form of questioning, since workers could be expected to be wary of contradicting what their employer has said when they are being questioned at their place of employment. Pomerantz also notes that “WAC-MAAN submitted a complaint to the police and received no reply. There is something problematic here that creates an illegitimate situation of police intervention.”

And as if all this were not enough, last December the garage submitted two letters to the labor court, signed by Maj. Eli Elmakias, head of the external garages department in the Ordnance Corps. One letter was from August and the other, Tzarfati claimed, from December (the date on the second letter was illegible – N.H.). The letters concerned Abu Ziadeh’s employment and said, “Based on information we have, we ask that the Tzarfati garage does not permit the above worker to handle military vehicles… We are against permitting the worker to come into any contact with military vehicles being repaired at the garage, for fear of [his] causing damage to the vehicles… the worker was previously kept away…”

Pomerantz explains that “it is impossible to know if the ordnance officer who signed the letters knows that the police file has been closed. In a previous mail from July 2014 he wrote that he opposes the employment of the worker as long as there is a file open against him. Now the question must be asked, on what basis does he write what he writes, when it’s clear he cannot harm a person’s livelihood without factual evidence? Already a month ago we contacted the State Attorney and still haven’t received a reply, and a week ago we contacted the State Comptroller and the Defense Ministry.”

Almost six months have passed since Hatem Abu Ziadeh lost his work permit and with it his livelihood of 17 years, but he does not sound bitter.

Tzarfati thinks it won because I’m a taxi driver now,” he says. “But we have already won, the workers joined WAC-MAAN, and we will soon be granted the other rights we should have.” Even regarding his own situation he remains optimistic: “I believe I’ll get the permit back and go back to work.”

No response has been received as yet from the IDF or Israel Police.

Translated from Hebrew by Yonatan Preminger. This article first appeared here on the website ‘The Hottest Place in Hell. Read the original Hebrew here.

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