Thursday, October 21, 2010

The Ragged Trousered Philanthropists of Palestine

Anti-Boycott, Divestment & Sanctions (BDS) crusader, Paul Howes, is gearing up to head off a push by a group of Australian unions to have the Australian Council of Trade Unions (ACTU) declare its support for BDS*.

In a recent speech to his fans at the Zionist Federation of Australia in Melbourne, Howes, who moonlights as national secretary of the Australian Workers Union, made much of a certain "landmark" agreement between the Israeli trade union federation, Histadrut, and the Palestinian General Federation of Trade Unions (PGFTU): "The reality is that despite the headlines most of the trade union movement in Australia, and across the globe, has not backed BDS... Let's remember just a few months ago, in Vancouver, Canada, the World Congress of the global union movement, the International Trade Union Confederation - the ITUC - stared down attempts to label Israel an apartheid state... In an even-handed response - this was supported by both the Palestinian and Israeli trade unions - the World Congress praised the landmark agreement between the Histadrut and the PGFTU on the rights of Palestinian workers. The ITUC - now led by my former ACTU colleague Sharan Burrow** - of course played a key role in delivering that Palestinian-Israeli agreement... Most importantly... the Israeli national trade union centre, the Histadrut, was honoured by the global trade union movement. Its leader, Ofer Eini, was elevated to the ITUC's 25 member Executive Board, as well as its General Council.. Mr Eini was also elected as one of the global union group's Vice Presidents." (Standing up to the Boycott, Divestment & Sanctions movement,, 10/10/10) [* See my 15/10/10 post Watch This Space ** See my 29/9/09 post ACTU: Missing in Action]

The Histadrut-PGFTU agreement is described on the ITUC website thus: "The key features of the agreenent include the reimbursement by Histadrut to the PGFTU of the outstanding balance of union and legal representation fees paid by Palestinians working for Israeli employers. The reimbursement is based on a detailed year-by-year analysis of the fees paid by Palestinian workers, taking into account funds previously transferred to the PGFTU. The PGFTU will have sole discretion as to how the funds will be spent, in line with its Constitution. In the future, at least 50% of the representation fees paid by Palestinians working for Israeli employers will be transferred to the PGFTU, to enable both organizations to provide representation, legal and other trade union services to the workers." (Israeli & Palestinian trade unions reach historic agreement, 6/8/08)

Given that this is the flimsy peg on which Howes hangs his grandiose-sounding, BDS-bashing outfit, Trade Unions Linking Israel & Palestine (TULIP), the Histadrut warrants closer examination:

It is certainly no ACTU. From its inception in 1920, the Histadrut has been "at the spearhead of the Zionist colonization in Palestine. Its choice position among the country's Zionist colonizers and its extremely strong organization made it a pioneer in agricultural colonization and in securing jobs for Jewish workers*, by evicting and excluding Arab peasants and workers. The Zionist slogans of the 20s and 30s - 'the Conquest of Work' and 'the Conquest of the Land' - found their principal realizers in the Histadrut." (The Other Israel: The Radical Case Against Zionism, ed. Arie Bober, 1972, p 124) [* The Histadrut was known until 1966 as the General Confederation of Hebrew Labour.]

With the Conquest of the Land (of Palestine) completed in 1967 and the Conquest of Work a fading memory, the Histadrut (in tandem with the Israeli government) turned from evicting and excluding Palestinian peasants and workers to robbing them blind. An enlightening January 2010 report by Kav LaOved and The Alternative Information Centre (AIC), The Economy of the Occupation (Zohar & Hever), tells how. It is worth quoting at length:

"Summary: Excessive deductions from Palestinian workers: In this report we propose an approximate calculation of amounts that the Department of Payments deducted from the salaries of Palestinian workers from the Occupied Palestinian Territoies (OPT) who were employed in Israel, or which were deducted for them from their employers, from 1970 to 2009. These amounts of money were formally deducted in order to finance various social rights for the workers, but in practice, a majority of the money was transferred to the Israeli Ministry of Finance and the Histadrut. The calculation shows that over decades, the State of Israel accumulated a debt of billions of shekels to the Palestinian workers. This debt must be paid to the workers themselves or to their beneficiaries, in accordance with the full and detailed lists of the Department of Payments.

"The declared goal of establishing the Department of Payments was to equalise the salary condition of Palestinian workers from the OPT to those of Israeli workers. The Department was established in 1970 and belonged, until 2009, to the Ministry of Industry, Trade and Labour (today it is attached to the Ministry of Interior, after Palestinian workers were defined as 'foreign workers'). The State obligated employers... to transfer the gross salary of the Palestinian workers to the Department of Payments.

"The Department of Payments is supposed to deduct from the salaries various taxes and deductions for social benefits equal to those of Israeli workers. In upholding its obligation to deduct money from the Palestinian wages, the Department was stringently meticulous. However, in upholding its obligation to provide workers with services and benefits in exchange for these deductions, the Department was negligent. Thus, for example, 92% of the money supposedly deducted for National Insurance for old age payments, disability, unemployment and child payments was transferred to the Ministry of Finance. Money was transferred to National Insurance only for insurance in cases of work accidents and bankruptcy of the employer. This is the most scathing example, but not the only one, of cruel theft under the protection of a government decision, the declared goal of which is 'protection' of Palestinian workers. We made the calculation for Palestinian workers who formerly worked in Israel. Two groups of Palestinian workers are prominently absent from this report: Palestinian workers in the Israeli settlements in the OPT and informal Palestinan workers, whose salaries were not transferred through the Department of Payments. Separate research should be undertaken concerning these groups..." (pp 6-8)

Fast forwarding to the exact amount : "The calculated amount of debt without interest is NIS 3.082 billion, and with interest the amount reaches NIS 8.350 billion. It is important to note that this calculation is accurate to 2009, in 2008 prices, and does not include central elements for which information is not available. The calculation is therefore lacking." (p 23)

While the report discusses a range of deductions, for the sake of brevity and because it mentions our "landmark Histadrut-PGFTU agreement," I'll zero in on item 4 only:

"4. Organising fees - Histadrut: In a 1970 government decision, which established the Department of Payments, the Histadrut also received a piece of the pie. Palestinian workers were forced to pay 'orgainizing fees' to the Histadrut at a level of 0.7% of their salaries. The Histadrut allocated to the workers individual assistance, but no defence of their rights vis-a-vis the Ministry of Finance and Department of Payments. Through its constitution, the Histadrut even denied the right of workers who are not citizens of Israel to become members.

"On 6 August 2008, the Histadrut signed an agreement with the Palestine General Federation of Trade Unions (PGFTU). The Histadrut transferred to the PGFTU the amount of US$3.6 million (NIS 12.76 million, according to the exchange rate on the date of the agreement), an amount meant to represent the organizing fees collected since 1993. According to our calculations, from 1993 to 2008, the Histadrut collected organising fees from the Palestinian workers in Israel in the amount of NIS 66.2 million (not including interest): more than five times the amount returned by the Histadrut. The agreement additionally determined that half of the organizing fees collected by the Histadrut after signing would be transferred to the PGFTU.

"Based on a calculation of 0.7% of the salary of Palestinian workers as organizing fees for the Histadrut until May 2005 (when the fees were raised to 0.8%), we reached an amount of NIS 132 million (in 2008 prices) which was deducted from 1970 to 2009 as organising fees. After deducting the money that was transferred to the PGFTU and half of the fees in 2009, excessive deductions in the amount of NIS 116 million remain.

"Addititionally, the Department deducted an additional 2.74% for a Provident Fund and health tax, which were included in the same package of deductions as organising fees for the Histadrut. The health tax covered health insurance of the workers in the OPT. It is unknown to us where the money deducted for the Provident Fund went and on what authority it was deducted.

"On the basis of a circular of the Department of Payments, we know that for the Provident Fund, NIS 0.54 were taken from every worker in the construction sector for each day of work at least until 1993, ie. 3.1% of their salary. From here we calculated that from 1970 to 1993, NIS 152 million (in 2008 prices) were taken from them for the Provident Fund. We do not know if this deduction continued after 1993, but we do know that the workers did not receive a Provident Fund.

"Under the false definition of Palestinians as 'daily' or 'temporary' workers, a majority of the benefits determined in the collective bargaining agreements of the Histadrut with the employers were stolen from Palestinian workers, including increments for security, family upkeep, grants for not missing work, a 13th salary in the agricultural sector and more." (pp 11-13)

The term 'short end of the stick' comes to mind here, but, in light of the report's findings (dismissed by the Histadrut as "tendentious and false" (p 21)), it looks like the PGFTU (and those it supposedly represents) have been given more of a poke in the eye with a burnt stick. BDS activists take note.

1 comment:

Anonymous said...

Great work MERC