USi editor Tim Lezard reports from the Jordan Valley

IMG_8502Workers in the UK face hazards every day, but I doubt many have been bitten by a snake up a tree.

That’s a real threat for date-pickers in the Jordan Valley, lifted into palm trees by cranes and left there, without food or water, for as long as three hours.

“Snakes climb the trees to go after eggs,” explains Wael Natheef of the Jericho branch of the Palestinian General Federation of Trade Unions. “If you’re a worker, where do you go to escape a snake? It is very dangerous work.”

On the ground workers face different problems, namely exposure to pesticides, as well as low pay, racial discrimination, sexual harassment, blacklisting and, bizarrely, lie detectors.

But despite all this, unions are growing in the Jordan Valley, as organisers steal into villages after nightfall to teach workers about their rights.

“It is tough, but we start,” says Wael, whose organisation is helped by Kav LaOved, an Israeli labour rights group campaigning for rights for workers employed by Israelis.

Hasan Jarmi, mayor of Zbeidat in the Jordan Valley. He says Israeli settlers are bypassing employment laws

Hasan Jarmi, mayor of Zbeidat in the Jordan Valley. He says Israeli settlers are bypassing employment laws

Small groups of Israeli settlers have occupied the land, employing Palestinian and Thai workers on low pay. Employers avoid labour laws by sub-contracting work, allowing them to deny knowledge of H&S breaches, underpayment and illegal hiring of children.

A couple of days later we visit Nazareth, where we meet Assaf Adiv, leader of Wac-Ma’an, an independent union for Arab and Jewish workers in Israel.

“Solidarity with Palestine is a principled position everyone should adopt – we want workers to meet, to look into each other’s eyes and break down the wall,” he says.

“Not everything to do with Israel is negative. This is not a struggle of one race, one society, it is a human struggle. We are all working for justice: freedom is a slogan that can unite Jews and Arabs.”

We hear from truck drivers attempting to organise against worker exploitation, low pay and long hours which could be fatal if they fall asleep at the wheel.

“Israel has very good labour laws … but they aren’t implemented,” says driver Shuki Shabso. “The bosses send us on safety courses one day, then the next day they tell us to break the safety rules.

“But they are clever. They cheat you in such a way you cannot sue them. Other drivers are afraid to join the union because they threaten us, but they cannot threaten me because I am not afraid.”

We also meet the PGFTU in Ramallah, where Shaher Saed says unions’ biggest campaign is to get employers to pay the national minimum wage. Palestinian women are being paid less than a quarter men’s wages, but the Israeli government refuses to enforce labour laws.

“Every day it is criminal,” he says. “We do what we can but the government does nothing.”

People in Ramallah are so desperate to work they risk six months in prison by climbing over or tunnelling under the wall. For those who can afford it, middle-men charge as much as €400 for permits to get them through the wall to work.

Sharer says the PGFTU tries to stop the middle-men but, although they can find their telephone numbers, they can never confirm the men’s or where they are, so the police never take action.

“The occupation is giving our people a hard time … the borders, the checkpoints, the wall,” he sighs. “We are fighting on so many levels.”

  • USi editor Tim Lezard has recently returned from Palestine, where he was part of a delegation organised by the Palestine Solidarity Campaign. USi is publishing exclusive extracts from his report in advance of its publication on September 14th. The report is funded by ASLEF and TSSA

This work is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution-NonCommercial License.
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Tim Lezard

Campaigning journalist, editor of @Union_NewsUK, NUJ exec member; lover of cricket, football, cycling, theatre and dodgy punk bands

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