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Source: International Labour Office (ILO)
19 May 2017

International Labour Conference, 106th Session, 2016

Report of the Director-General


The situation of workers of the occupied Arab territories

International Labour Office Geneva


In accordance with the mandate given by the International Labour Conference, I again sent this year a mission to prepare a report on the situation of workers of the occupied Arab territories. The mission visited the West Bank, including East Jerusalem, and Gaza, Israel and the occupied Syrian Golan. The mission leader met in Cairo with the Director-General of the Arab Labour Organization and representatives of the League of Arab States.

The mission had in-depth discussions with representatives of the Palestinian Authority, the Government of Israel, employers' and workers' organizations in the Occupied Palestinian Territory and Israel, Syrian citizens in the occupied Syrian Golan, and representatives of the United Nations and other international and non-governmental organizations, as well as focus groups of Palestinian workers. They all provided information which has guided the preparation of this report. The mission also undertook a number of field visits.

I am grateful for the cooperation extended to the mission by all its interlocutors, which once again reaffirmed the broad support for the values of the International Labour Organization and its ongoing work with all its constituents. As always, the mission conducted its work with the aim of producing a comprehensive, accurate and impartial assessment of the current situation of workers in the occupied Arab territories.

This year marks the 50th anniversary of the Israeli occupation. The second generation born under this occupation has now entered adulthood. The occupation itself has become ever more entrenched, especially with the expansion of Israeli settlements in the areas beyond the 1967 borders. Repeated attempts at finding a negotiated solution have failed. Five decades of occupation have seen both violent conflict and steps for a negotiated settlement follow one another. For about half of this time, the Oslo Accords have served as the roadmap for the way to a two-state solution. Yet this seems now more elusive and threatened than at any time since the direct negotiating partners and the international community agreed on it as a goal. No acceptable alternative scenarios have emerged, and at this moment, the process seems to be suspended in time, nervously waiting for something to happen. Unfortunately, history does not give reason to hope that in the region anything good could come out of such uncertainty and lack of any initiatives towards peace.

Some hope was briefly resurrected in December last year, when the UN Security Council adopted a resolution calling for an end to Israeli settlements in the Occupied Palestinian Territory, including East Jerusalem. Yet as has so often been the case in the past, this hope was soon extinguished. No concrete steps were taken to follow up on the resolution. A few weeks later, announcements were made of further expansion of the Israeli settlement activity and the building of more housing units on the occupied lands.

Consequently, the everyday reality of Palestinian working women and men and their families continues to be dominated as before by the multitude of obstacles arising directly out of the occupation. In the West Bank, the restrictions on movement and economic activity and the overbearing presence of settlements have fragmented the labour market and impeded the development of a viable and vibrant Palestinian economy. Area C, which amounts to most of the occupied West Bank, is barely accessible to Palestinian entrepreneurs and workers. A multitude of checkpoints and closures continue to severely constrain labour market mobility.

A number of important policy initiatives have been undertaken by the Palestinian Authority in the last few months, most notably the finalization of the National Policy Agenda for 2017-2022, but their effect on the ground remains to be seen. The harsh reality facing all efforts to strengthen the Palestinian labour market is the control that the occupation exercises over Palestinian borders and the access to land, water and natural resources. The space for opportunities to work, farm, produce and create jobs in the occupied territories remains severely constrained.

Economic growth does take place in the West Bank and Gaza, but it remains well below its potential. It is not sufficient to improve livelihoods, and it barely translates into any significant employment gains. Unemployment remains pervasive, higher than in any other country in the Middle East and North Africa and more than twice the regional average. Youth and women are the hardest hit: two out of five young persons in the labour force are without a job, and unemployment among women is even higher.

For the close to 2 million Palestinians living in Gaza, the situation has gone beyond a point which common sense would consider untenable. Gaza continues to be sealed off by land, sea and air. Measurable unemployment remains well above 40 per cent. Among economically active youth, the unemployed constitute the majority; among graduates, joblessness is all but universal. However, such data is only a poor indicator of the desperate state of large numbers of Gazan households. The overall economic and labour market situation is suffocating. Gazans are unable to move for work elsewhere. Economists rightly cite the situation in Gaza as a case of de-development.

In these circumstances, it is understandable that an increasing number of Palestinians in the West Bank seek work in Israel and, indeed, aspire to that as a primary solution to their problems. About one quarter of the total wages earned by the Palestinians of the West Bank comes from employment in Israel or the settlements. Wages in Israel are more than twice as high as in the West Bank. Yet many workers face hardship and exploitation, in particular by unscrupulous brokers who make disproportionate and in some cases outright abusive profits out of matching Palestinian jobseekers with Israeli employers. The report of the mission gives striking examples of the disproportionate share of earnings that are taken by the brokers. The fee collected by the broker can in some cases exceed the Palestinian minimum wage. A significant amount of money intended for remuneration of work thus disappears into the pockets of the brokers, to the detriment of not only the Palestinian workers themselves but also of a healthy economy in both Israel and the West Bank.

The mission was given important information on how some of these pressing issues are now being addressed by the Israeli authorities, who intend to introduce reforms to the permit regime and improve wage payment systems. If such measures are promptly implemented, Palestinian workers will be less vulnerable to exploitation, working conditions will improve, and take-home pay will increase. Continued cooperation between Israeli and Palestinian trade unions is another important way of increasing the economic and occupational security of Palestinian workers. An improved permit system will also provide greater certainty for Israeli employers that they can employ the Palestinian workers, whose input in certain sectors, such as construction, is important for them.

At the very least, these issues demonstrate a growing degree of understanding about the interdependent labour market realities in Israel and the occupied Arab territories. Work for Palestinians in the Israeli economy provides for a degree of improvement. However, in the current circumstances it does little to improve the functioning of a Palestinian labour market in a sustainable way. A two-state solution implies the coexistence of two labour markets, side by side, providing for orderly mechanisms for their interaction. In such a case, Palestinian work in Israel would not be a substitute for the lack of opportunities. Furthermore, while these policy initiatives are welcome, the measures that the authorities take also need to be complemented with urgent action to remedy the often humiliating situations at the crossings arising out of long waiting and travel times. One of the aims of the Oslo agreements was to establish well-functioning labour markets for both Israel and the Palestinians. This remains little more than a distant aspiration.

The "Oslo Generation", that is, all those born after the 1993 treaty, now account for the majority of Palestinians. Their employment situation and labour market prospects are increasingly bleak. Frustration among youth, as we have seen in the past and elsewhere, can at short notice feed radicalization and violence. Even if the current level of confrontation and violence is lower than during earlier years, the latent tensions are ever-present, and the continuous level of verbal conflict threatens to narrow the distance from words and posturing to action, which more often than not has further violent consequences. Once again, the cycle of violence may start again at any time and escalate.

Whatever the prime responsibilities of the direct parties to the conflict are, the rest of the world cannot afford to disengage from this conflict. Decisions by and assistance from the international community have been crucial both in shaping the conflict and its imbalances and in the attempts to fmd just solutions to it. The peace process, which to all practical purposes has ground to a halt, must be reanimated with a view to achieving the two-state solution. Its architecture and its very foundations are now being called into question; urgent action is needed while the foundations that have been laid over the last two decades are still intact and not all exchange between Israel and the Palestinian Authority has stopped. While lasting peace needs to be owned by those directly concerned, the Palestinians and Israel, reaching it calls for the international community and its multilateral institutions to be engaged in the process. The promotion and application of social justice and decent work must continue as vital cornerstones of that effort.

May 2017
Guy Ryder

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