The Ma'aleh Adumim municipality came to a precedent-setting agreement with its Palestinian employees last week, whereby it agreed to recognize their rights in accordance with Israeli labor laws. Until now it was the Jordanian Labor Law from 1965 that was applied to the labor arrangements in this Jewish settlement beyond the Green Line, based on the local authority's legal argument that it is that law that applies in the territories.
The agreement is considered to be precedent-setting, because for the first time it relates to the routine employment conditions of Palestinian workers and their path to achieving equality of such conditions to those of Israeli workers. In the agreement, the Ma'aleh Adumim municipality committed to employing the workers under Israeli law and applying collective work agreements for municipal employees throughout the country. This means that henceforth, the Palestinian workers will enjoy social benefits from which they were previously excluded. Moreover, the municipality will pay the workers NIS 1.5 million, for wage differentials and for lawyers' fees.
More than two years ago, a similar dispute surfaced in an area adjacent to Ma'aleh Adumim, when 60 municipal workers belonging to the Jahalin Bedouin tribe sued in the Labor Court to be employed under Israeli labor laws. The suit was filed on behalf of Jahalin Bedouins by attorney Shlomo Lecker and involved a mediation effort between the two sides. Retired Judge Dina Efrati presided over the dispute. Employers, including the local councils in the territories, benefit from a lacuna in the law that enables employment of foreign workers cheaply and without any oversight. Thus, for decades Ma'aleh Adumim's municipal employees, like most of the Palestinians hired in the Jewish settlements, were employed without any social benefits, pension arrangements or oversight of their conditions of employment, as the law requires inside Israeli territory. In most cases, the Palestinian workers also have not enjoyed the improvements made to the Jordanian since 1965.
In 2007, in the wake of a petition by a group of workers from Givat Zeev, a bench of seven at the High Court of Justice ruled that the local council must pay them severance compensation in accordance with Israeli employment laws. "The question remains as to why lengthy court procedures were necessary in order to bring about the obvious outcome from the High Court precedent by an expanded bench handed down in October of 2007," Lecker wondered. "Why did the municipality argue in court until recently that it was proper to continue to apply the Jordanian law to the plaintiffs?"
Municipality director general Eli Har Nir says in response that Ma'aleh Adumim will be the first employer in the country to have such a large group of Palestinian municipal workers employed under Israeli law. "The situation that has been created isn't easy and it has serious budgetary implications for us," admitted Har Nir. "We had an agreement with the workers from 2005 that adopted the Jordanian law. The agreement is valid and was approved by a court but circumstances led to the filing of the new suit. We have studied its details and we agreed, at the judge's recommendation, to the mediation process."