By Laura Schwartz
Whilst all Palestinian workers have suffered as a result of the Israeli occupation and the intifada, it is the women who have been worst affected. But women trade unionists are fighting back, confronting both economic obstacles to women’s freedom and retrogressive attitudes within Palestinian society.
Increased restrictions on the movement of Palestinians and the daily nightmare of checkpoints, have prevented many workers from being able to travel to their jobs. This, along with massive cuts in the number of permits granted to those wanting to work in Israel, has left 75% of Palestinians unemployed. As a result, women have been increasingly marginalised, forming only 12% of the labour market — one of the lowest rates in the world. Only married men over the age of 35 are permitted to work in Israel, and the few companies still in operation in the Palestinian territories prefer young single women employees, in order to avoid paying maternity costs.
Women have been forced into low-paid, casual and unregulated jobs. The experience of Ibstisam Sayeg is typical. Before the second intifada she worked as a secretary with one of the largest NGOs in Palestine, but had to leave her job in order to look after her father. When she began to seek paid employment again in 2000, the situation had already seriously deteriorated. She managed to find work as a hotel receptionist, but without a proper contract she soon found herself being forced to do the cleaning and many other extra tasks that she had not been employed to do. She eventually left the job, believing that “I would rather live with dignity, be able to hold my head high, than accept just anything.” She now does needle work at home, selling her produce to whoever is willing to buy it for no more than 200 shekels ($45) a piece, for items that can take up to two months to make.
Like Ibstisam, most Palestinian women now carry out economic activities in their homes. This work is not considered official, and therefore not regulated by any labour laws. Nor does it supply women with enough to live on. Abla Masrujeh, the Palestininian General Federation of Trade Union women’s co-ordinator explains how, “Because they are the first to lose their jobs, women accept deplorable working conditions, making pickles for example, or other food products in their homes. But how can we defend them when they are not considered genuine workers by the law?”
The impact of these economic trends on women workers extends beyond the workplace. There has been a sharp increase in school drop out rates amongst girls, whose education is often the first to be sacrificed by families struggling to survive. Mounting poverty is also leading to a rise in early marriages as families rush to be free of mouths to feed. Linked to this is the high rate of fertility, with on average 6.1 births per woman. The percentage of women raising their children without a partner has risen from 7% in 1997 to 11% in 2003, but the poverty rate of such households is 1.3 times higher than families in which the man is the main breadwinner. The serious economic difficulties confronting Palestinian women on a daily basis have also been accompanied by a rise in Islamic extremism and conservative ideas, attempting to place even further restrictions on the role and place of women in Palestinian society.
But Palestine’s economic and social upheavals are also changing mentalities about women’s role in the family and workplace. Disapproval of women’s work is a major obstacle to women seeking paid employment and decent wages, but now that a single wage is no longer enough to support families this attitude no longer viable. Nareman Ibrihim Farag Allah is director of the PGFTU radio programme “The voice of Palestinian workers”. She believes “The major economic crisis we’ve faced since September 2000 has, in practice, forced women to contribute to household finances. So there are now more and more women working like me. This revolution is bound to change the way society sees us, I’m sure of that.”
Women trade unionists are taking this opportunity to tackle traditionalist attitudes and further women’s rights by organising women workers and changing union structures to respond to their particular needs and position within the labour market. Their work is based on the conviction that improved trade union rights leads to improved women’s rights. The Palestinian General Federation of Trade Unions founded its women’s department in 1997, and drew up a strategy the following year which aimed to increase female membership by educating women about their rights as both women and workers.
Reaching out to women whose time is taken up raising children, and whose work in the home or as seasonal agricultural labourers does not provide the traditional framework for union activity, has not been easy. But the women in the PGFTU are committed to making trade unions more accessible to women. Abla Masrjeh explains that “Given the high level of unemployment amongst women, we have changed our way of working. Rather than visiting their workplaces, we go to the places where they live, their neighbourhoods”. One strategy is to identify micro projects, considered useful to Palestinian society as a whole, which can be carried out by women working in the informal economy. The PGFTU also offers financial and food aid during crisis periods, which has served to raise the union’s profile amongst non-member and unemployed women.
Yet women trade unionists have identified the need to expand their activities to respond not just to the economic effects of the latest intifada, but also to the social and psychological problems it has given rise to. Abla Masrujeh claims that this is “something we learnt from the first intifada…At that time the attitude was that we had to show that we were strong at all costs, never show our weaknesses, our pain, our fears…” Now, the PGFTU gives women training to help them deal with the conflict’s impact on their children, as well as how to respond to emergency situations, perform first aid and contact the emergency services.
Women trade unionists not only face obstacles presented by the wider economic and social conditions; they also have to tackle the problem of male resistance within the unions. “We haven’t had any problems in terms of policies” says Masrujeh, “But we have met with a lot of resistance on the part of men when it comes to the practical applications of these policies in the various regions.” The Women’s Affairs Department called for a target of 30% female representation on the decision making bodies of the PGFTU, but this was reduced to 20% at the last congress. In part this relates to the fact that women form only 12% of membership, which in turn reflects the very low percentage of women employed in the formal labour market.
But progress is being made. A campaign run jointly with the Federation of Palestinian Women to campaign for women’s rights and changes in the labour laws, secured a number of positive results, including the extension of maternity leave, and the allocation of a one hour a day in breast feeding breaks for a one year period. Amneh Reemawy of the PGFTU takes a typically realistic but determined view of the myriad challenges and opportunities facing women trade unionists in Palestine; “Palestine’s future might not be rosy,” she comments, “But that’s no excuse for sacrificing women.”