It’s unlikely that the owners of the Zarfarti garage realised it was heart unions week when they signed a collective agreement with the trade union WAC-MAAN on Valentine’s Day. It was definitely a heart unions day for workers at the garage, who have finally won a four year struggle to gain recognition for WAC-MAAN.
The Zarfarti garage is one of 300 businesses in the Mishor Adumim Industrial Zone. According to international law it’s located in an illegal settlement on Palestinian land; but as this is Area C, which makes up over 60 per cent of the West Bank, it’s completely under the control of the Israeli authorities. Most Palestinians don’t want to work in the industrial zone, but have little choice as the occupation means a viable Palestinian economy is virtually impossible. As such they endure low pay, long hours and precarious work in poor conditions.
In July 2014, after almost a year of negotiations that brought limited gains for workers but no collective agreement, the owners attempted to fire Hatem Abu Ziade, the head of the workers committee. They falsely accused him of sabotaging a military vehicle and barred him from entering the industrial zone for “security based” reasons.
Hatem’s story is not unusual. He had worked at the garage for 17 years without any complaints. When Hatem attempted to organise his colleagues, the owners assumed he could dismiss him and shut down the union without any consequences. On this occasion they were wrong.
The UNISON International Development Fund (UIDF) supported WAC-MAAN to organise workers in the industrial zones, so when they approached UNISON’s international committee for assistance to fight Hatem’s case in the Israeli courts, of course we agreed to help.
Following strike action at the Zarfarti garage and a lengthy battle in the regional labour court, the judge ordered that Hatem should be reinstated and his union recognised. Dissatisfied, the garage owner appealed to the national labour court. Again the court ruled in Hatem and WAC-MAAN’s favour.
The verdict sent shock waves through the industrial zone and has far reaching consequences. Few believed that a Palestinian worker, with the backing of his union, could win against the garage owner, who is a high ranking military reserve officer and a settler. According to workers, at least one worried employer on the industrial zone increased salaries when he heard about the court’s decision.
Hatem Abu Ziade finally returned to work on 11 May 2016, and 10 months later, on 14 February 2017, the Zarfarti garage agreed to sign the first ever collective agreement for Palestinian workers in Israeli controlled industrial zones in the West Bank.
I am proud that UNISON supported WAC-MAAN to organise Palestinian workers in the illegal Israeli industrial zones, and we stood with them in their fight for justice for Hatem and the workers at the Zarfarti garage. Wins like this are rare for Palestinian workers living under occupation, so when they happen they should be celebrated. Especially in heart unions week.