Eid Safi is the father of five children, the oldest of them 13. He began his years working in construction inside Israel at the age of 23. Today, as a thirty-year-old man, this is his family’s source of income.
Since the beginning of the Intifada, I have been unemployed, Safi says, holding Reem, a year and a half and the youngest of his children, in his arms. I sold my car and my wifes jewelry so I could feed my children. I dont know how I will live tomorrow.
Eid Safi is just one of tens of thousands of Palestinian laborers who depend on work inside Israel for their income and who have recently joined the ranks of the unemployed. Most have been banned from going to work because of the closure imposed on the Palestinian territories under the guise of Israeli security for almost five months. There are dozens of other workers who lost their jobs in Palestinian factories because their employers could no longer pay them.
As unemployment rates soar and the actual number of unemployed reaches 250,000, according to the most recent United Nations statistics, the Palestinian Authority appears helpless in solving or alleviating this problem. Meanwhile, accusations of corruption are flying fast between the Palestinian labor ministry and the labor union.
They stole from us flat out, says Safi, as he produces a list of workers from Jalazoun camp, where he lives. All these names did not appear in the lists of the ministry and union even though they are all names of regular workers who are still around. The same no doubt happened in every area, city and refugee camp. They even want to take part of our childrens livelihood.
Saudi Arabia offered aid to Palestinian laborers in the sum of 20 million rials (about $5 million) to alleviate their suffering. The Palestinian Ministry of Labor was commissioned by Saudi Arabia to prepare a list of Palestinian laborers eligible for this assistance, estimated at a one-time disbursement of NIS 600 or $150 per laborer. The ministry would only grant this aid to those workers holding a valid Israeli work permit.
But no sooner had the money been distributed to laborers on the ministry list, those who were not on the list became angry – and suspicious. Safi was one of these workers. Even those who did get the relief complained that one payment was not enough.
From the start, the labor union expressed anger that it had not been consulted in the ministry’s preparation of the list. Union head Rasem Bayari maintains that, there are dangerous transgressions in the list of names because some of the people whose names are on the list are abroad and others are employed. Also, a number of the people on the list do not fit the conditions announced by the ministry.
Bayari rejects the idea that Palestinian workers employed in Israel should receive assistance, while West Bank and Gaza workers do not. But general director of operations at the labor ministry Saeed Mdallal said that those unemployed inside the Palestinian areas will receive assistance. He admits, however, that this depends on incoming funds. He blames the delay on stalled Arab financial assistance.
After the problems with the first distribution of funds, the labor union was included in making the payment to the second list of workers. Still the charges of dishonesty and lack of transparency persisted.
Now the laborers, speaking for themselves, say that clear standards were not used to specify which laborers should have priority. The names of most local laborers,” says Safi, “have only recently been registered in the labor unions branches. The union could not determine which laborer was eligible and which was not. Other skilled workers and shop owners registered their names in the union, while many names of local laborers did not show up in the union lists.
What were the mechanisms or standards by which the union distributed the aid? Put simply, favoritism and personal connections are the standards followed in both the ministry list and the union list, he says bluntly and with surprising unrestraint.
The laborers in need of assistance have their names taken off while the funds go to people with connections and who are not in need of this trivial amount, [an amount that] could support an entire family for someone else.
In spite of the fierce debate over the distribution of these funds, Palestinian labor minister Rafiq Al Natsheh says these complaints are minor. There have been no more than 20 complaints from the 85,000 laborers granted assistance since the beginning of the Intifada.
The labor minister admitted to some mistakes in the registration of these lists. Some were intended, such as employees registering relatives, and some were not intended. He confirmed that the ministry immediately halted the checks in the faulty cases. The minister says that the relative rarity of the mistakes “does not mean that we do not take the necessary measures against transgressions from employees from the general administration of operations in the ministry.”
At the same time, he says that the major problems were found in the lists prepared by the union. They distributed the allocations according to lists they prepared themselves without asking for our help. So, they are the ones responsible for this distribution. We are not responsible for any one elses mistakes.
Safi maintains his sad smile and quiet demeanor. But after the ministers statements and accusations between the ministry and the union, he has lost hope that he and his colleagues, whose names he carries in his pocket, will be added to the relief list which he says exists not for the workers but for “shop owners or engineers.
He ends with a famous Arabic saying: Somewhere along the line, we got lost in between.