Outside the Dheisheh Refugee Camp in Bethlehem, trash that has accumulated over the past month lies unattended, while schools and health clinics remain shut. The UNRWA workers have been on strike for nearly one month, demanding what they believe has become their right to strike.
Today, workers of the United Nations Relief and Workers Agency in the West Bank will continue their strike that began on October 14. The area staff workers of UNRWA, who provide most of the daily services to refugee camps throughout the West Bank, are demanding that they are compensated for six-days of missed work during a strike last July. While UNRWA workers are on strike, UNRWA services such as, schools, clinics, trash pick-up, and food distribution have come to a halt.
This issue dates back to July. After the strike the union and the UNRWA administration entered into an agreement that stipulated several issues that awaited negotiation, including a pay raise that would compensate for the depreciated value of the Jordanian Dinar (the currency of the wages) and whether or not the workers would be paid for the strike.
However, despite the fact that the issue of paid strike days was tabled for future discussions, their pay was nevertheless revoked, in what the union characterises as unilateral. “We were surprised when our salaries came at the end of the month and UNRWA (had) deducted three days of salaries. They had taken the decision alone, without negotiating, without returning to the area staff union,” Yacoub Abu Khiran, a member of the area staff union and the Area Finance Officer for Hebron, explained to me while sitting under the strike-tent at the main entrance of Dheisheh Refugee Camp.
According to Abu Khiran, the union is most concerned about receiving payment for strike days because it will make striking more difficult in the future, “They say ‘no work, no pay’, which means strikes are forbidden.
“What UNRWA aims is to prevent any future strike. Which is actually legal, which is our last weapon. Because we cannot afford to deduct even one dinar from our salaries, it means that in the future, we can’t use this weapon.”
According to Abu Khiran, this is the first case that Barbara Shenstone, current director of the UNRWA in Palestine has refused to pay the workers after a strike has ended.
Negotiations over this issue began at the beginning of August, during which time the union offered a concession to work longer hours or on days off to earn back the missed days’ wages. The workers have lost three days of pay and three days of annual work leaves.
The Palestine Authority’s Ministry of Labor has supported the union in their demand for paid strike days. Abu Khiran stated, “The Ministry of Labor says our strike was legal, and there should be no deduction. From the point of view of the Ministry even our offers to make up time is illegal. Because strikes are legal and should be paid in full.”
Due to the current strike, basic services that are normally provided to the camps have ceased to operate. Even families qualifying as ‘Special Hardship Cases’- those without any source of income, are not receiving food subsidies. “Nothing is provided now: education, relief services and health services are fully stopped now,” Abu Khiran said.
Despite these hardships that residents of Dheisheh Refugee Camp face, they are nonetheless supportive of the strike. Member of the Popular Committee in Dheisheh, Naji Odah, explained that when he walks through the camps, residents ask him many questions, but they also want to help the strikers. “The institutions, the residents, although they are affected and harmed from the strike, they support us. The majority of us feel they are a part of them,” Odah said.