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ISRAEL-OPT: Palestinian workers' situation has worsened, says ILO

JERUSALEM, 31 May 2007 (IRIN) - A new report issued on Monday by the International Labour Organization (ILO) says seven out of 10 households in the occupied Palestinian territories, or about 2.4 million Palestinians, are living in poverty. It says the workers' situation has continued to worsen dramatically over the past year.

According to the report, entitled The Situation of Workers of the Occupied Arab Territories, the Israeli-imposed "closures [checkpoints and movement restrictions] are the main cause of the worsening socio-economic situation of Palestinian women and men."

These restrictions on the freedom of movement, which intensified in 2006, the report says, have adversely affected labourers, and products cannot be moved on domestic or international markets.

Israel says it needs the checkpoints to ensure the safety of its citizens.

Hasan Barghouthi from the Democracy and Workers' Rights Centre in Ramallah in the West Bank said he was not surprised by the ILO findings.

"The checkpoints create poverty. People are suffering because of this poverty," he said.

World Bank report

A recent report by the World Bank echoed these sentiments, and indicated that Palestinians cannot hope for any economic growth without a significant change in the closure policy.

"In economic terms, the restrictions have… stymied growth and investment which is necessary to fuel economic revival," the World Bank wrote in its report entitled Movement and Access Restrictions (May 2007).

Barghouthi said growth was desperately needed: "About 65 per cent of Palestinians live on less than US $2 a day. In the Gaza Strip, where the majority of the population were refugees, this figure was over 80 per cent," he said.

International boycott

The ILO report also said the inability of the Palestinian Authority (PA) to pay wages to its employees since March 2006 was having a devastating effect. Over one million people, out of an estimated total population of 3.5 million Palestinians in the West Bank and Gaza Strip, depended on these salaries.

The PA has been subjected to an international boycott, including a freezing of aid money, since the Islamic Hamas movement rose to power in last year's elections and refused to recognise Israel and renounce violence.

In addition, Israel refuses to hand over taxes it collects for the PA, compounding the fiscal crisis.

Shlomo Dror, from the office of the Coordinator of Government Activities in the Territories at the Israeli Ministry of Defence, said: "The new PA government does not recognise Israel and, therefore, the meetings needed to facilitate the transfer of tax funds cannot be conducted."

Strikes

The ILO further said the non-payment of wages had led to public sector strikes which had disrupted delivery of vital services, including in the health and education sectors, and this "has contributed to social and institutional erosion."

Hana Zohar, from the Israeli Workers' Hotline (Kav LaOved), said that given this situation, the Israeli government decision to limit the number of Palestinians able to work inside Israel had led to further complications for workers. Workers from Gaza were unable to work in Israel.

"The government has also decided that by 2008 no Palestinians will work inside Israel. This means more and more of them are working in Israeli settlements in the West Bank," she said, in line with the ILO report, which added that this change in labour patterns was an active policy initiated by the Israeli government.

The ILO called the settlements "illegal under international law".

Zohar said this change meant Palestinian workers were more likely to be abused.

Low pay, poor conditions

"About 90 per cent of Palestinian workers don't receive the minimum wage, in part because there is no government enforcement in the West Bank," Zohar said, basing her comments on her organisation's research. "In some cases, Israeli employers withhold wages for months" adding to the poverty problems.

"But besides this, the conditions are the worst thing. Unsafe. In some cases, they work with chemicals in plastic factories without any protection," she said. In essence, some Palestinian labourers endanger their health without even getting paid.

However, Dror, from the Israeli Ministry of Defence, said: "Any Palestinian can turn to an Israeli court, if he feels his rights are violated. And many in fact do exactly that."

He also said work permits are issued based on the demands of employers, and his office increased the number of Palestinians working for Israeli businesses, regardless of job location.

"How many states would even let people at war with them work in their country at all?" he asked.

Dror added that the ILO report ignored many of Israel's security needs and concerns.

Zohar said that ultimately Israel should realise that if it did not allow Palestinians to earn a living, it would be responsible, under international humanitarian law, to care for them and their needs.

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Copyright © IRIN 2007
This material comes to you via IRIN, the humanitarian news and analysis service of the UN Office for the Coordination of Humanitarian Affairs. The opinions expressed do not necessarily reflect those of the United Nations or its Member States.
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