Palestinian employees at the Yamit Filtration & Water Treatment plant in the Nitzanei Shalom industrial zone adjacent to the Palestinian city of Tul Karm launched a general strike on December 31, after the company’s owner and CEO, Ofer Talmi, refused to accede to their demands for a collective labor agreement.
For its part, the company said it has agreed to salary increases and other benefits through individual employment contracts with the employees in accordance with Jordanian law prevailing in the West Bank. The concessions follow a series of strikes and labor court litigation over the separate employment terms that Israeli and West Bank Palestinian employees have been subject to at the plant.
When asked to explain, Talmi said that as a 10th-generation resident of this land, he is not prepared, despite his respect for the Palestinian employees, to recognize that they are subject to Israeli employment law and if forced to do so, he will stop employing them. As owner of the company, Talmi described himself as “someone who knows that the Land of Israel belongs to the Jewish people, and I am not prepared for a Palestinian employee to be linked to the State of Israel in any way.”
In a response for this article, Talmi expressed regret for his earlier remark, “which does not represent my position or my conduct. I respect the employees and their rights, as I do the important, long-standing economic and national project at Nitzanei Shalom. I hope that common sense prevails and that the employees enter into negotiations as the court has requested.”
The 75 Palestinian production workers, who live in Tul Karm and its vicinity, organized at the beginning of 2020 through the Maan labor organization. They demanded a collective labor agreement that would put an end of the company’s practice of providing different employment terms for its Israeli and Palestinian employees.
The company says it is complying with the relevant laws and with a labor court order later issued in the case. Talmi, the company’s owner, has claimed that the Palestinians’ employment terms are governed by Jordanian law, as a result of Jordan’s rule over the West Bank prior to the 1967 Six-Day War. Maan, an Israeli organization, argues, however, that Jordanian law does not apply to workers represented by an Israeli labor organization. In a statement for this article, the company said the National Labor Court’s order confirmed that Jordanian law applies to the employees.
In response to a draft of a collective agreement from Maan, at the end of December the company management at Yamit Filtration refused the workers’ demands. The labor group says that in addition to refusing to increase the employees’ salaries, the company also demanded salary cuts from long-time employees. According to Maan, the company threatened that those who refused would be dismissed.
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From an email that Talmi sent to Maan on January 2, it is apparent that the company was refusing the workers’ demands, not only as stated in the email – “because the workers don’t have Israeli ID cards and by their own definition are not foreign workers like the workers from Thailand or other countries.”
“If at some point the law requires me to, I will stop employing them, because deep inside of me, the heart of someone who is a 10th generation in the country beats, who knows that the Land of Israel belongs only to the Jewish people,” he stated. “I respect and love them, but I love my own people more.”
Nearly a year of delays
Yamit Filtration’s manufacturing plant is in an Israeli industrial area adjacent to the Israeli security barrier that is within the municipal boundaries of Tul Karm. It has employed Palestinian production staff who are residents of the West Bank, all of whom live in areas under the jurisdiction of the Palestinian Authority.
Most of them are skilled professional staff who have been paid the minimum wage and have no opportunity to be promoted at the company. They were not provided pensions, and employer contributions into an employee severance fund were halted 10 years ago.
Since 2016, the company has insisted that each employee have an individual employment contract rather than be employed through a collective labor agreement, and it cites a 1966 Jordanian law in support of its position. The Palestinians were not represented by a labor organization when they signed the employment contracts. In January 2020, they organized and demanded a collective labor agreement with improved employment terms.
Management held an initial meeting on the matter in February but negotiating sessions were then deferred due to the coronavirus pandemic and only resumed during the summer. In September, the two sides agreed that to expedite the talks, Maan would present the company with a draft collective employment agreement, which was provided. The talks again came to a halt when the company said it was encountering financial problems due to the pandemic, and the company repeatedly violated interim understandings that it had agreed to.
In November, Maan formally declared a labor dispute with Yamit Filtration and staged a two-day warning strike, which was followed by another warning strike later in the month, during which the company recruited workers to replace striking employee, prompting Maan to file a petition with the Israeli labor court.
The two sides met at the labor court in Jerusalem on November 16 and came to an understanding on the employees’ return to work and the future course of negotiations. The company responded to the draft collective employment agreement at the end of December, following another court hearing on the case.
The Palestinian employees have now been on strike again for about two weeks. On Tuesday, the plant recruited 20 Palestinian replacement workers, after which Maan sent the company another warning letter. After speaking to the striking employees, the replacement workers left the plant.
“The company is acting according to the law and the order of the National Labor Court, which ruled that Jordanian law applies to the employees, and we are conducting ourselves accordingly,” Yamit Filtration said in a response for this article. Individual employment contracts have been entered into with the employees, which have been approved by the workers’ committee, providing them salary increases and other benefits including pension contributions, paid sick days and severance benefits.
The company accused Maan’s director, Assaf Adiv, of “cynical exploitation” at a time when the company is facing difficulties due to the pandemic. Adiv’s involvement “is damaging good labor relations and coexistence that have existed for many years and the fair, rewarding jobs for residents of Tul Karm.”
In a response for this article, Maan said the Palestinian employees are seeking a fair wage and pension and other employment benefits. “The strike that was declared at the plant is a legal response to the refusal by company management to recognize that long-time employees are entitled to respectable compensation for their contribution to the plant, and that these are professional employees who have been employed for 20 years at minimum wage without promotions or social benefits.”
The labor organization called on Yamit Filtration to sign a collective labor agreement, which it said would put an end to the strike.