Mishor Adumim, occupied West Bank – Every day, Hatem Abu Ziadeh drives his yellow bus between the West Bank towns of Birzeit and Ramallah, taking a few shekels from each passenger. It is not an easy way to make a living, and Abu Ziadeh says supporting his six children is getting more difficult every day.
Abu Ziadeh has not always worked as a driver. A trained mechanic, until recently he worked at Zarfaty Garage in the Jewish West Bank settlement of Mishor Adumim. He was good at his job, which he had held for 17 years.
But last summer, he received a hearing notice signalling the termination of his contract. A few weeks and a slew of accusations later, he was unemployed.
Abu Ziadeh thinks he knows why he was dismissed. He is the leader of a union of Zarfaty’s Palestinian workers, which had escalated its struggle to improve conditions at the garage. WAC-MAAN, the Israeli union that the garage employees are working with, also believes two other workers have lost their jobs because of union activity.
“Whoever signed up for the union is not a good worker now,” Nidal Rostom, a Zarfaty worker and union supporter who has also been dismissed, told Al Jazeera. “He’s a problem.”
Rostom and Abu Ziadeh both became locked in a legal battle to return to work. After a lengthy court case, Rostom was recently able to return to work. For the union, it was a huge victory that dramatically increased workers’ confidence and support. But it is also the latest stage of a drama that has been developing for some time.
Zarfaty’s staff first organised in 2013, working with WAC-MAAN for basic rights, such as a minimum wage and paid sick leave. Over time, the management gradually improved conditions. But when workers made further demands and went to court over strike-breaking, things started to go wrong.
“We came to a point where things were completely legal. And we said there are more issues here: Every employee had the minimum wage, so we asked for a pay scale, and also that he needed to pay the debt he owed to his workers,” Yoav Tamir, WAC-MAAN’s Jerusalem branch secretary, told Al Jazeera.
At this point, Tamir says, the garage’s management “started a war”: Abu Ziadeh received a hearing notice, and in response the workers went on strike.
When the garage was challenged in court, events took a more sinister turn: Company representatives accused Abu Ziadeh of being a security threat – sabotaging the military vehicles he was hired to fix.
As a result, Abu Ziadeh’s permit to enter Mishor Adumim – essential for his ability to work – was revoked. Police have since dismissed the accusations that Abu Ziadeh was a security threat, but a new permit was never secured, and eventually he was dismissed entirely.
Of the 70 to 80 workers at the garage, around 45 – all Palestinian – have now joined the union. They are protesting against inequalities experienced by many Palestinians who work in settlements and within Israel, often for fewer benefits than their Israeli counterparts, even though the minimum wage for both groups is the same.
“There are not many Israelis that would like to work in these jobs… Palestinian workers are reliable and have lower labour costs in terms of social security and so on,” Robey Nathanson, director general of the Macro Centre of Political Economics in Tel Aviv, told Al Jazeera.
There are not many Israelis that would like to work in these jobs. There's very low levels of employment among Palestinians in the West Bank.
Nevertheless, Nathanson views many of the challenges faced by settlement workers – such as fear of dismissal – as common to all employees. “This is the case anywhere; it has nothing to do with the West Bank, or with occupation. It’s based on labour relations more generally.”
Tamir believes that this case, however, and especially the accusations against Abu Ziadeh, demonstrate a particularly dramatic inequality experienced by Palestinian workers in settlements. “Here we have an officer in the army, a high-ranking officer, who gets a piece of land for cheap. And some of his job, a big part, comes from the army,” Tamir explained. “He doesn’t have to pay his workers minimum wage or benefits. But when the cheap labour he uses starts unionising, he goes to the army to accuse them of being terrorists.”
Zarfaty’s management did not respond to requests for comment on this case. The garage ownership denies that any dismissals were political: In court, they argued that many more non-unionised workers were dismissed in recent months due to cost-cutting measures.
For union member Hasan Jelayta, however, the ease with which employers can dispense with workers only shows how important organising is. He believes the inequality inherent in settlements makes it easy for employers to exploit their workforce. He said that recently being prevented from returning to work at the garage after a period of ill health has only confirmed that feeling.
“There is an imbalance of power between the two sides. We need to ask, who needs whom?” he told Al Jazeera. “The Palestinian needs the work. He can be replaced easily – most employers can find another worker. The settler is in a very strong position and the Palestinian worker living under the occupation is in a very weak position, under a lot of stress when it comes to getting any job.”
Rostom agrees that the union is crucial to securing rights for workers. Last month, after seeing a petition from the garage’s workers, the judge hearing his case said he should return to work. He is now back on the garage floor.
“Before they used to work out everything between the individual workers and the employer. If there was a problem, they’d say, ‘Fine, take some work, take some cash, whatever.’ They tried to break the workers apart,” he said.
“Since there’s a union, they’ve had to talk with the union and therefore everyone,” Rostom added. “The owner has to deal with the problem – he has to talk to us with respect.”
The enthusiasm for unionising is spreading across Mishor Adumim, beyond the garage. At the beginning of this year, workers at an aluminium plant in the settlement unionised with WAC-MAAN. The workers involved know it will be an uphill battle to fight for their rights, and that unionising – especially with an Israeli organisation – comes with a huge set of challenges.
Zarfaty, for example, has tried to undermine the union’s work by framing it as political. But workers hope this could be the start of a new chapter for organising.
“One worker alone is weak, because the owner is the one that makes the decisions, who’s in control. The worker is afraid,” Abu Ziadeh explained.
“But when the workers join hand-in-hand as one person together, there won’t be a possibility for the owner to play one against the other. If he’s trying to fire a worker who’s from the union he will have to think very carefully, because he knows he will get a response – from all of us.”