Breaking Through in Palestine
Why women and youth are leading the way in the Palestinian Territories
Palestine is an incredibly young society — 37% of the population are under 17 and 24% are aged between 19 and 24. A whopping two-thirds of the population are under 29.
Yet when Dr Samer Salameh, the Deputy Minister of Labour for the Palestinian authority opened the workshop, he noted his surprise at the amount of young participants.
“When I accepted the invitation to a trade union workshop, I was sure that I would see a much older crowd,” joked Dr Salameh. “However, I’m absolutely delighted to see so many young faces and so many women trade union leaders today.”
Yet this is the story in Palestine — young, motivated trade unionists are changing the narrative and breaking through for workers in the finance sector.
At the Finansforbundet funded UNI Finance workshop in Ramallah, West Bank, trade unionists participated in a workshop in order to continue their groundbreaking organising drive in the Palestinian finance sector. In January, after a similar workshop, the National Trade Union of Banking and Insurance workers succeeded in organising a huge surge in membership with over 479 new members joining the union. The aim this time, is to add another 243 members and continue to build this young union.
Activists learned how to map out workplaces and employers, how to identify potential new activists, how to talk and listen to workers and how to identify the issues that workers really care about. Activists also took time to study why workers do or don’t join unions in order to tailor their approach to recruitment.
This year, the union has gathered over 100 activists, trained them in Organising Strategy and set about winning mass majority membership in the sector — specifically at two of the largest banks. These two banks have indicated that in light of the organising successes of the union they are prepared to sign the first recognition agreements in the sector. NTUBI wants to grow their union so as to win collective bargaining and to be able to sit down on equal terms with the companies and improve workers’ lives.
The Finance sector is one of the most important in Palestine — employing approximately 11,000 workers in 20 companies and accounting for over 27 % of the Palestinian economy.
It is impossible not to mention the severe difficulties and threats posed to organising in Palestine.Travel and movement are severely restricted by various obstacles such as checkpoints, security walls, road blocks, closures and random checks. The West Bank is home to around 2.7 million Palestinians but is being traumatised by the increasing number of Israeli settlements on its 5600 square kilometres.
Although the United Nations has ruled that the Israeli settlements violate the Geneva Convention of 1949, which prohibits the transfer of an occupying power’s civilian population into occupied territory, the number of settlements continues to increase. In 1993, at the time of the Oslo Accords, the Israeli settlements totalled around 165,000 people. Despite the agreement in the Oslo Accords to cease the building of Israeli settlements, the number now exceeds 600,000 according to the Israeli Information Centre for Human Rights in the Occupied Territories, B’Tselem.
The separation wall, which extends for almost 708 kilometres upon completion, is a physical reminder of the difficulties facing the Palestinian people. Unemployment in the Palestinian Territories is rife at 29 percent (44 % in Gaza) and creates a working environment of fear and insecurity, as workers are terrified of losing their jobs. The conflict has rumbled on for over 70 years, a conflict which according to Dr. Mahdi Abdelhadi of the Palestinian Academic Society for the Study of International Affairs, is “an endless conflict — a conflict over land, identity, narrative, history, denial and religion.”
In Ramallah’s Al-Amaari refugee camp, the situation is dire. Dwindling funds due to Trump’s decision to cut millions of dollars from the UNRWA programme have served to exacerbate an already difficult economic and social situation in Al-Amaari.
Although the refugee camp houses almost 10,500 people, lack of funding has further entrenched a desperate situation. There is only one clinic for refugees in the camp, with 2 doctors seeing over 300 patients a day. Education is also an issue with only 2 schools in the camp and 50 pupils to one teacher. There is anger and mistrust due to the lack of resources and poverty in the camp, but also a sincere hope for peace.
It’s against this testing backdrop of conflict and occupation that the unlikely success story of Palestinian trade unions is unfolding. Amidst the hostility of conflict, young workers are full of hope and belief in the NTUBI and have been invigorated by the support of UNI and Swedish union Finansforbundet.
Tahreer Kamal, a 28 year old who works at the Arab Islamic Bank has been a part of the union for 1 year and has already seen improvements at work.
“Working at a bank, it’s hard to manage your work-life balance,” says Kamal. “I get to work at 8 am and come home at 7pm, so I barely have time too see my daughter or socialise with friends.”
“If our work is focused and organised, the potential of trade unions in Palestine is sky-high. We can change people’s way of thinking. Trade unions have already started to change the perceptions about women’s role in society.”
“In the past, our role in society has been somewhat marginalised. Now, women are starting to have success both in the public and private sector and are building a voice. Women make up 50 % of society, and it’s only right we have a voice. We are proving that our involvement in trade unions can be a big boost for our institutions and our societies.”
Although women represent 49.7% of the near 345.5 million people in the MENA region, and have high education levels (13 % of women in Palestine hold university degrees compared to 9% of men), they still struggle to participate in the labour force at the same rate. UNI Equal Opportunities is spearheading efforts to empower women in the region through its’ pioneering Mentoring Programme, which has had great succcess in building skills and helping women to find their voice in the union movement. According to several participants in the UNI Finance workshop, the Mentoring Progamme has been instrumental in providing a platform for young women to build on their experience of the trade union movement.
Kamal, who will be present at UNI’s World Congress in Liverpool from June 15–18 to receive the Breaking Through award for NTUBI’s organising successes, praised UNI for their workshops and support in Palestine.
“The workshops have been invaluable here — we’ve achieved a lot together and trade unions are growing here in Palestine thanks to the determination of our young members and the support of UNI and Finansforbundet.”
Wa’el Elbuss, a manager at insurance company Al-Mashreq, has been an active member of the union for over 4 years and has been a prominent part in the membership surge over recent months.
Wa’el is confident that the next round of organising will be as successful as the last. “Our cooperation with UNI so far has been supportive, collaborative, helpful and efficient — we’ve learnt a lot and will continue to make it happen for Palestinian workers,” he says.
“Trade unions need youth like plants need water — when we go in to the banks to organise, most of the workers are young too, so it’s important to have young trade unionist who can relate to them in order to recruit them to the union. We’re well educated and motivated to make a difference in our trade union structures and society.”
Wa’el also sees a part to play for trade unions in shaping the way Palestinian society develops. “The occupation has an impact on everything - from freedom of movement, to the nature of our society, our economic development and job prospects. As you can see in Al-Amaari, the negative impacts of the occupation creates a self-perpetuating cycle that ensures that Palestine stagnates. Trade unions and individuals can positively influence social affairs in terms of housing, healthcare and education, and we have a responsibility to build as a trade union to make sure that these things are respected.
Alaa’ Khadeijeh attended the UNI workshop in Amman and believes that UNI is having a positive effect on the Palestinian trade union movement.
“One of the biggest problems in our sector is the lack of incentives and motivation — we work really hard to achieve almost out of reach targets. Even if we do achieve them, management do nothing to reward us and therefore the morale of workers is low.”
With the dedication of a young and diverse trade union movement, the NTUBI has been able to become a force in the sector. Alaa’ believes that now is the time to take advantage of the opportunities being presented for young women in Palestine.“We have to exercise our abilities to communicate and take advantage of the opportunities we are afforded to create a better society,” says Alaa’. “When women aren’t included in the conversation, society suffers.”
Alaa’ is particularly effusive when it comes to UNI’s role in the recent success stories, explaining, “the role that UNI is playing in Palestine is very promising — UNI is making a difference right now. 6 months ago, we would not have believed we would be where we are now. Mark my words, UNI is going to be a great success and ‘Make it Happen’ here in Palestine.”
Hannadi Tahhan, who also works at Al-Mashreq believes that the union is plotting the right way forward to blend a mix of youth and experience to take the union to the next level.
“I’ve attended a couple of UNI workshops now, and what strikes me is that we can really find the young people who have the potential to go on and be leaders in the union. We want to give them the tools and the freedom to write the future of Palestine and our union.”
According to Hannadi, another huge benefit of the workshops is building the capacity to plan strategically and plot short, mid and long-term objectives. Hannadi and the union have set about trying to implement a groundbreaking agreement from management to have nurseries for the children of the women who work in the finance sector.
“It’s important to unify around a common set of goals and ideals,” explains Hannadi. “A lot of women in Palestine have identifed this as one of the primary issues as they are often forced to choose between their work and their family.”
Another issue the union is working on is the rate of pay in Palestine. As Palestine does not have an official currency, US dollars, Israeli Shekels and Jordanian Dinars are commonly used. However, with bank workers receiving their salaries in dollars, their rate of pay never remains the same due to a changing exchange rate.
For some, this is their first experience of trade unions. One participant from the Palestinian Islamic Bank said that she was convinced by a colleague to come along to the workshop to see what trade union organising was all about.
“In Palestine, the youth are desperate. We are desperate to get involved in the discussion at all levels — whether it’s at work, in our trade unions or in society, young people are raring to get started,” she says.
“The past few days have encouraged us, galvanised us. We’re sure that the next few days of organising will only give us more motivation and courage. When we feel like we are backed up and supported, we feel like we can achieve anything.”
There is a real sense in Palestine that this is the start of something big. Some observers have noted that the political situation in the region has deteriorated in the last few years, but through the fog and the haze of conflict, there remains hope for finding solutions. The peace process may be stagnant at the moment, but trade unions are proving that they are willing, motivated and capable of breaking through for workers in Palestine. With young workers and women at the forefront of the movement, trade unions are ‘Making it Happen’ in Palestine.