Muhammad Quneitah is the head of the Federation of Palestinian Labour Unions in the Gaza Strip. The following interview with him is abridged from the Jerusalem Palestinian weekly, Al-Fajr.
Reports from the occupied territories say that Palestinian workers are experiencing unprecedented difficulties. Could you elaborate on that?
The new Israeli system of giving magnetic cards to Gaza Strip residents, particularly workers who wish to leave Gaza for work, is causing a lot of problems.
The majority are not eligible for the cards in the first place, since the Israelis place almost unreal requirements on card holders, and so they are unable to get work outside Gaza. In order to get such a card, one needs first a paper from the tax department certifying that all one's taxes as well as those of one's relatives have been paid. Most workers can't get such a paper because they haven't paid this special tax the Israelis call a "life tax" which means US$1000 each year. This tax is imposed even on people who don't work.
Workers from Gaza who are fortunate to have magnetic cards and can cross over the "green line" are nevertheless treated at the border like animals or slaves. They are kept waiting for transportation in an area fenced off with barbed wire. Here they wait for buses or cars sent by their employers to come and pick them up. They are not allowed to drive in on their own. This means that one must have a job and a previous arrangement with the boss in order to work. There is no permission to go out and look for a job.
The authorities claim that 50,000 workers got permits, but in reality only 18-20,000 actually have jobs in Israel for whom transportation is arranged. This is out of the 60,000 that worked in Israel before the Gulf War.
Those without prearranged transportation from their employers and without a steady job, but possessing a work permit, are allowed to travel to this holding area and stand waiting for an Israeli employer to come and hire them for a day's wage. If they are unlucky, they can stand there all day waiting for nothing and still have to pay the transportation costs to and from the border.
Daily wages for workers used to be about 50 Israeli shekels (approximately US$20) before the Gulf War, and if they were lucky, the workers used to spend the nights in Israel, saving transportation costs and returning on the weekend. Now, however,
their daily wages are about 40 shekels, and they must be brought back by their employers each night as conditioned by their permit, and they have to pay more than 20 shekels, or half their daily wage, for this transportation.
There are also certain areas in Israel like Tel Aviv where Gaza workers are prevented from working, and these are the areas where most of them used to work before the war.
Unemployment in Gaza is now almost 70%, and there isn't anywhere near the amount of industry or employment opportunities in Gaza itself to solve this problem.
Despite the fact that the authorities are charging the workers' taxes, is it your understanding that they are doing nothing to promote employment opportunities, in other words, giving back no benefits for the taxes they are taking?
Yes, that is absolutely true. The Gazan laborers who work in Israeli institutions pay the same rate of tax that their Israeli counterparts pay. Even the Israeli labour union, the Histadrut, takes out 1% of their wages for union dues, but the Gazans get absolutely no representation from the Histadrut, no benefits whatsoever. More than 16% of their wages go to various fees and taxes, and yet they reap no benefits. Israeli workers obviously reap the benefits of their deductions.
We have demanded more than once that they pay back the deductions taken from our workers' wages and give them to the Gaza union so that we can more properly represent them. It amounts to millions of shekels and would do much to improve local standards and income, but they have refused to respond.
What are you as a union able to do?
Our unions were only revived in 1980 and were illegal under the occupation before that. Until 1987, our activities were very restricted, but then we had elections and, despite the enormous difficulties, were able to elect an administrative board of the unions and organise into a federation. We are not given free rein, however, and one of our biggest problems is that we are unable to represent our workers in Israel.
Are employers in the Gaza Strip cooperating with the union?
Most of our factories in Gaza are closed. Those which operated before the Gulf War were forced out of business during the war. They couldn't pay the taxes the Israelis demand of them. Only factories related to seasonal goods like citrus are operating at this point, and they can do nothing toward employing a total labour force of 120,000.
Do you see a solution?
The only solution I see is a political solution. Nothing will work as long as the occupation remains.