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Palestinian Quarry Workers Organize

T

HE SAL'IT QUARRY lies in the desert north of the West Bank settlement of Maaleh Adumim, a bedroom suburb of Jerusalem. Its workers have decided to break through the Fear Barrier and wage a struggle for their rights. There are 42 of them; 18 live in annexed East Jerusalem, a fact which gives them the status of permanent residents in Israel; the remaining 24 come from other parts of the West Bank and are considered residents of the Palestinian Authority (PA).

The quarry is in Area C, defined by the Oslo Accords as under direct Israeli control both civilly and militarily. Yet the authorities—government ministries, the safety bureaus and the Society for Protection of Nature—keep their distance. All claim to be restricted in what they may do beyond the Green Line, and often they do nothing at all. This hands-off policy makes the area a No Man's Land for workers' rights. Officially, the Civil Administration (an Israeli military apparatus) is in charge, but the relevant officer appears to be chiefly concerned about the welfare of Israeli entrepreneurs. The result is extreme disregard for job and safety conditions, vaguely written pay slips for the East Jerusalemites, and no pay slips for the PA residents, who also have no proper insurance for work accidents.

Safety regulations disregarded for profit's sake

The Sal'it Quarry opened in 1983. On the site they extract gravel and dirt, and there is also a plant for making asphalt. The plant uses material from the quarry, as well as bitumen brought in from outside. The business makes good profits. Its fleet of trucks carries asphalt throughout the country. Yet its owners haven't supplied even minimal facilities for the workers. M.V., who has been there for more than a decade, described the conditions to the Workers Advice Center (WAC-Ma'an): "There is no town nearby. There are big tractors and trucks, there are machines for the dirt and gravel, and there's the asphalt plant. All this takes place in the desert heat. There is always dust in the air, a great deal of noise and filth. After 24 years the quarry still lacks restroom facilities for us. There is no room to eat in. We only have cold water because we pooled money and bought a fridge." (After WAC confronted the quarry management about these matters, the latter sent a letter to Challenge's sister publication in Arabic, al-Sabar, stating that it has begun to build a dining room and washroom.)

The employers have taken not a single step to protect the workers from the dust, which can cause asthma and cancer. According to government regulations dating from 1984 and 1991, workers must be provided with protection from dust; there must be regular inspections to determine the amount of dust in the air; and the workers must undergo regular check-ups. The Sal'it Quarry has not fulfilled these requirements. WAC turned to the Institute for Safety and Hygiene, which answered that it has no authority to enter the place unless invited by the owners. On March 21, 2007, I phoned Alex Gertzman, who is responsible for quarries in the Jerusalem branch of the Institute; he told me that, unfortunately, even the quarries inside Israel do not fulfill some of the safety regulations. Daphna Siman Tov, in the Jerusalem Branch of the Ministry of Environment, told me (also on March 21) that because Sal'it is in Area C, it may have fallen between the stools, with the result that no one supervises the place. She promised more detailed answers, but we have yet to receive them.

Workers without health insurance

In the worst situation are the 24 workers who live in the PA areas outside Jerusalem. They receive no pay slip, they have no health insurance, and there's a big question mark as to whether they are covered in case of an accident on the job. Until a few years ago, their wage was paid in cash, so they had no paper confirming their employment. Today the wage is paid by check, and the stub, which remains with the worker, contains the name of the Sal'it Quarry. The main problem, though, is the lack of health or accident insurance.

The deceased worker, Yihyeh Mahmoud Khader of Jericho worked at a machine for asphalt production in the quarry from its opening in 1983 until 2005. One day two years ago he became ill on the job and was rushed for treatment to Muqassad Hospital in Jerusalem. The doctor advised that he not return to work in the quarry, and so, for the sake of health, he was forced to sacrifice his family's source of livelihood. Khader turned to the quarry's managers and asked for separation pay and other rights. He met with refusal. He then petitioned the regional labor court in Jerusalem, but he died in a Jordanian hospital before any decision was taken. Until today the Sal'it Quarry has paid not a shekel to his family.

Khader's family and co-workers believe that his health was damaged because of his employers' indifference and because no one supervises conditions at the quarry. The co-workers testify that Khader was a machine operator in the asphalt plant. Only he knew how to work the machine, and he was asked, therefore, to put in weeks without a break. One witness described him as standing at the machine with eyes closed from exhaustion.

The situation of the 24 from the PA areas typifies that of Palestinians by the thousands who are employed in the settlements of Area C. They have not been able to work legally in Israel for more than a decade, and now that the wall has gone up, it is much harder and riskier to sneak in. Within Israel's borders, labor laws protect workers to some extent, although even this is becoming doubtful. For those in the Territories, however, Israel's closure brought a huge increase in unemployment, with a predictable drop in wages, so that Palestinian workers in the settlements, like those at the quarry, will accept almost any terms offered them. Even $12-15 for a ten-hour day beats starvation. (See "The Wall and the Sweatshops" in Challenge 103).

According to Kav LaOved (Workers' Hotline) in its Annual Report for 2006, the core of the problem is the legal basis for the rights of Palestinian workers in these areas. "The violation of workers' rights is rooted in the sovereignty of Jordanian law in the Territories since 1965" (Ginat Gitit in Haaretz Weekend Supplement, September 27, 2006). The Jordanian labor laws were frozen after the 1967 War, except for a few special orders from the Israeli Civil Administration. The absurdity here is that Israel builds settlements, confiscates land, and blatantly violates the Fourth Geneva Convention, which forbids changes in conquered territory. Where workers' rights are concerned, however, it continues an archaic legal system that, even in Jordan, has been long outdated.

Problematic pay slips

The 18 with Jerusalem residency count as Israeli workers in all respects, but they claim that their legal rights are trampled on.

They showed us their pay slips. These contain a number of unusual features. The oddest is the "vacation balance." The slips show that beyond the normally allotted days of paid vacation, the workers took many additional ones, for which they were also paid. We have slips showing a negative balance of around 60 days of paid vacation beyond the allotment. This means that the company has, in effect, made loans to the workers, amounting to $2500-$3500, without interest or security. We know of no company that would do such a thing. Furthermore, the workers claim that they never took extra vacations. They cannot prove this, however, because the number of days they worked in a given month is not recorded on the pay slip. The company has taken no measures to recoup the supposed debts. But if a worker makes demands on other issues, the management can point to his vacation balance and say, "Look, you owe us a lot of money. You're in no position to make demands."

The Jerusalemites also claim that when they went to work for the company, they agreed on what they thought would be a basic wage, but afterwards they discovered that the company includes extra benefits—such as travel pay, recuperation pay and meals—within that wage. The base is much lower, they say, than what was agreed, and this lower base is used to compute separation pay and other benefits.

The workers also complain about fines. Most of the Jerusalemites are truck drivers. If one has an accident on the job, the company fines him up to $1000. When equipment is stolen, say the workers, they are fined without due process. One told us about a case of theft that occurred in the night, at a time when he wasn't even at work, and yet he was fined. The fine is levied, they claim, as an irrevocable fact, without hearing what the worker has to say. Taking such fines is illegal under Israeli law, except where collective agreements permit it, and even then under well-defined conditions, which include a hearing for the worker. There is no collective agreement at the Sal'it Quarry.

The lack of a collective agreement is abundantly clear where pensions are concerned. The PA residents aren't even properly insured against work accidents, so how can they dream of a luxury like a pension fund? But most of the East Jerusalemites also have no pension fund. Some of the veteran workers do have Senior Employees' Insurance, a form of life insurance where both worker and employer contribute to the worker's premium. A few hundred shekels are deducted each month for this purpose from the salaries of these veteran workers. Some time ago, however, the insurance company notified them that management had stopped paying its share. The insurance may no longer be current, yet the deductions from their pay continue.

The workers organize

On February 27 one of the managers visited the quarry. On March 1 Attorney Majid Agbarieh sent a complaint to the management in the name of the workers, saying that this manager "threatened the workers with a pistol in his possession and threatened to introduce criminal types to the quarry in order to 'take care of' the workers."

The management responded two days later. It denied the claim but added that "there is no place for threats against anyone among the company's workers… There is no need to take any further action. The matter will be thoroughly checked by us. If the workers have any problem whatsoever in the future, they are invited to act in the accepted manner through the company's manager, Mr. Yehezkel."

The tone of management's letter encouraged the workers to take a step further and demand their rights. They delivered a new letter to management on March 12. It included nine articles, in which they detailed their demands: improvement of physical conditions, pay slips for the workers from the PA areas, an end to fines, a pension fund, a higher wage and more. The management responded with a promise to consider these matters, but then nothing happened.

The workers decided to fight. At the end of March they met with WAC—the Jerusalemites in Jerusalem and the PA residents in Maaleh Adumim. They described the situation, asking us to guide them in their struggle and provide legal help. Our first step, accordingly, was to phone the quarry management in an attempt to begin positive negotiations toward resolving the problems. We continued trying for a month. Mr. Yehezkel Soroka, the quarry manager, refused to meet us to discuss the workers' rights.

At the beginning of May, the workers decided, with WAC's support, to continue the struggle on the public and legal levels. In early July Attorney Bassam Karkabi will present a petition to the regional labor court in Jerusalem. The initial demand will deal with general problems, above all concerns of safety and hygiene, including accident and health insurance for the Palestinian workers. "end"

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