Jillian Kestler-D'Amours
Inter Press Service (IPS)
August 19, 2011 - 12:00am

Nestled between rolling hills just outside of Jerusalem, a dozen Palestinian workers have escaped the scorching summer heat in the shade of a makeshift tent, where they anxiously wait to sign what would be the first collective bargaining agreement between Palestinian workers and an Israeli employer.

"All the workers said we want to strike, so we’re not going back. Let’s finish the agreement, sign everything, and get our rights. After, we’ll return. Every day we are sitting here," says Niaz Qadadeh, a foreman at the quarry who has been leading the workers’ strike since it began on Jun. 16. Owned by Israeli company Salit Mishor Adumim, the Salit quarry employs over 40 Palestinian workers, all of whom hold either Jerusalem residency cards or West Bank-only IDs. The workers extract gravel and dirt and make asphalt at the site.

Fed up with their difficult working conditions and lack of basic rights, the workers began negotiating for a collective bargaining agreement in late 2009. They conducted various short-term strikes in order to pressure quarry managers to sit down at the negotiating table and their ongoing strike in an effort to force the company to sign an agreement that was drafted as a result of these negotiations.

According to Qadadeh, who has worked at the quarry for 17 years, the strike aims to ensure that he and his co-workers are guaranteed retirement pensions, monthly pay slips, fair salaries and safe working conditions, among other things.

"There are people who have worked here for 23, 24 years. When they retire, they leave with nothing. How? Tell me how?" Qadadeh said.

"The weather is very bad: dust, sand, and it’s too hot also in this area. It’s a dangerous job. One man was electrocuted. It’s very dangerous work, not easy."

Located in the Mishor Adumim industrial zone, within the jurisdiction of the Israeli settlement of Ma’ale Adumim, just east of Jerusalem, the quarry was built in 1983 and sits in Area C of the occupied West Bank, which is under full Israeli civil and military control.

According to the Palestinian Statistics Bureau, over 14 percent of Palestinians from the West Bank worked in settlements in 2010. That same year, the average wage for Palestinians working in Israeli settlements was double that of those not working in settlements.

If signed, the collective bargaining agreement at the Salit quarry would be the first of its kind between Palestinian workers and an Israeli company, and would set an important precedent for other Palestinians laboring for Israeli companies throughout the occupied West Bank.

"It is a huge thing for the Palestinians," explained Erez Wagner, the Jerusalem Coordinator of the Worker’s Advice Center (WAC-Ma’an), an Israeli labour organisation that helps unionise workers and has been actively involved in the collective bargaining process at the quarry.

"You see in Mishor Adumim, there are a lot of plants where Palestinian workers don’t earn the minimum wage. If they will see that there is a collective agreement here, they will fight for a collective agreement too. It will be a difference for the Palestinians, for the workers here."

According to Wagner, while the agreement is already drafted – and, in principle, agreed upon by both sides – quarry managers have consistently postponed actually signing it.

"They don’t want to sign the agreement because they don’t want to sign an agreement with the Palestinians. They don’t want the workers to work under a collective agreement. They said they will talk to us in a month but meanwhile they want the workers to start working again without any agreement, without any concrete things that they know they will get from the agreement," Wagner told IPS.

"The workers want to get all their rights and they will fight for it. They don’t want to continue in this situation any further."

Back in the workers’ makeshift tent, Niaz Qadadeh said that without work and steady pay for over two months now, he and his co-workers are struggling to support their families, especially in the middle of the holy month of Ramadan, and with Eid celebrations and the new school year fast approaching.

Still, he said that while the workers ultimately want to return to their jobs as soon as possible, they would continue to strike until the agreement is signed and their rights are secured.

"We would like to sit all together (with the managers) to sign the agreement and to finish the problem. It’s very difficult because everybody here is paid monthly. Our life is monthly. What we make, we spend. It’s not an easy life here and everything is very expensive," Qadadeh, a father of four children, told IPS.

"It’s not easy. But while I’m fighting for my rights, I must be strong."


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