MAAN – a labour union that refuses to accept borders
People who started MAAN in the 90’s were convinced that neoliberal perspective, which was very strong then, must be challenged. Now we see that Clinton was the crime, and the punishment is Putin. The successful capitalist system promised freedom and equality, a prosperous world. In reality it was, and still is, really disastrous – says Assaf Adiv, the leader of the Maan Workers Association, a trade union based in Israel, working among Palestinian and Israeli workers. MAAN is a socially oriented union, working across the separation wall to organize and defend Palestinians from the West Bank who are employed by Israeli companies.
What does the name of your union mean? I can sense there is something important behind it…
You are right. The name of the union is Maan Workers Association. Previously we were a centre of workers rights, so we were called Workers Advice Centre. Maan is an Arabic word, meaning together, and also a word in Hebrew, meaning address. Thus we are the address where workers can unite and work together. Our name serves the ears of both Arabic and Hebrew workers. This is very much the way we perceive things here, we are trying to create a space where all Palestinians and Israelis feel at home. This is a very big challenge, as you can imagine. Nobody in the end is a stranger here.
You have changed the organisational structure in 2009, what has pushed you to do that?
We changed our legal structure, because we thought that it would enable us to organise workers and influence how workers behave. If you remain on the individual level, you can work only in the framework of personal rights, but you do not change the way the workers behave. When they start to work together, it enables them to become active in the social struggle, and this is for us, and it was always for us, the most important thing. We came from the point of view that says we have to change the system.
The people who started Maan were convinced that neoliberal perspective, summed up in the slogan about the end of history, very strong in the nineties, must be changed. I would say now we see that the crime was Clinton, and the punishment is Putin. The successful capitalist system promised freedom and equality, a prosperous world. In reality it was, and it still is, really disastrous.
Here the crime was the Labour Party that signed the peace with the corrupted system of Palestinian Liberation Movement and promised freedom to Palestinians. These were false promises that created frustration and revenge feelings among Palestinians. They felt their leadership cheated them and moved to support Hamas.
We were completely convinced that things that came in the 90’, neoliberalism and so-called peace agreements would not serve the poor people, and in the end it did not. We also knew that the Histadrut – the biggest union federation in Israel – was in reality geared up into this system. It supported, participated and pushed forward the demolition of the welfare state. Histadrut is also very nationalistic.
Now you mainly focus on the problem of unprotected workers who come from Palestinian Teritories. When I was in Ramallah two years ago, every day tens of thousands Palestinians crossed the wall to work in Israel. And they did not have any labour rights at that moment.
You have 150 thousands Palestinians who enter Israel and the Israeli settlements every day to work for Israeli companies. In order to cross the checkpoints, they need a special permit with the name of the employer. It specifies that the worker is entitled to work only for this employer. We, in MAAN and a number of other organizations, refuse to accept it. On this issue of the permits you would never hear a word of criticism from the Histadrut. MAAN stands 100% with those workers, in the spirit of internationalism.
We want to find the way for both of the communities to work together and to create a better future. This is the big contradiction between us and Histadrut.
In terms of organising Palestinian workers, we are the only union that aims to organize those people. Palestinian unions in the West Bank and Gaza are not very strong, and they are also very divided. Furthermore, they are not legally allowed to stand with Palestinian workers in Israel, as they are not allowed to work inside Israel.
So it means if a worker works in Israel, and he/she wants to organize to demand his/her rights or to approach the labour court, they need an trade union based in Israel to do it. MAAN is a union Palestinian workers trust and we provide this platfrom.
So you try to cooperate with Palestinian unions from the occupied territories?
We have an exchange of information and ideas, but not a serious strategic cooperation. Partly it is because you have a problem with unions which is similar in many Arab countries. Here and there, unions tend to be an arm of the government and not an independent organization of workers.
How do you defend the rights of Palestinian workers?
We must challenge this complexity and stand up against the extreme forms of exploitation of workers. Without our intervention employers will just do whatever they want. They will take every advantage over the workers.
They can go as far as to impose a slavery like-system…
Yes. The main aspect of this semi-slave conditions is the the system of permits that controls the way Palestinians enter Israel and go to work.
As for workplaces for Palestinian workers, the biggest sector is construction where aproximately 100 thousands Palestinian nationals work. The next one is agriculture, with approximately 10 thousands employed Palestinians. Then you have industry, hotels and services. Altogether we have 120.000 Palestinian workers, who enter Israel on daily basis using the permits and 30.000 more working in the Israeli settlements.
The closure of the border in 2020 – 2021, due to COVID-19 restrictions, created a lot of economic difficulties in the West Bank. The Palestinian Authority came into crisis. The idea of Israeli government was to allow people to enter in big numbers to work in Israel and bring their salaries home to mitigate the danger of an explosion against the occupation if people started starving in the West Bank. So throughout 2021 and until March of 2022 the Israeli policy was to close an eye and allow a huge amount of workers to go through the breaches in the separation wall between Israel and the West Bank without permits. Of course, nobody know exact numbers, but approximately 40-50 thousands workers were crossing on a daily basis without the permits.
And then came a series of violent attacks in Tel Aviv Bnei Brak and Ela’ad since March 2022 that were conducted by the people who had just crossed the border without permits. So it triggered a big debate in Israel on why the army allowed workers to enter through the breaches in the wall.
What was the nature of the debate and its outcome?
The army was pushed by the public to put a stop of the uncontrolled passage of workers. Then, however, the Israeli security establishment put forward the question: what is going to happen to people who are barred now from entering and just stay at home.
Another example of the contradiction here was the policy toward people who are not married. They were forbiddened to get a work permit and, of course, passed through breaches in the wall. When the breaches were blocked, they could not reach work at all.
The decision of the Israeli security establishment was to increase the number of work permits, including, for the first time, unmarried workers in the age of 27. Something that was never allowed in the past.
What was MAAN position and how did you intervene in this discussion?
As I mentioned above, the permit system is based on the tule that in order to get a permit, you need an Israeli employer. The worker becomes completly dependent on his employer who can revoke the permit anytime, which gives him a lot of bargaining leverage. This is bonded labour par exellence. In addition, we have a phenomenon of permit profiteering. Some 40 thousands workers get their permits from Palestinian middlemen who sell them for NIS 2500 ($US 750) a month – up to half or third of the wage.
Israeli employers collaborate with the Palestinian profiteers in exploiting the desperate need for a job.
How do fight it? Is there concrete steps that you can take to stop this ?
We put forward a proposal to change the system and give workers Green Cards instead. We were working on the issue with a Labour Centre called Kav Laoved and with LEAP – lawyers who provide Legal Aid for Palestinians with the aim of getting to stop the trade in permits and the mechanism of bonded labour. The idea we put in a document published in January 2022 was to call for freedom of movement for every Palestinian, who gets what is called the “magnetic card” witch gives the owner security clearance.
We are invited to participate in the delibarations of the Knesset committee dealing with the issue, we are in contact with the Military Governmet in the West Bank, so we will see where it goes. It is an important fight that we know we cannot win without a political change. Nevertheless, we can still make steps forward, relying on the “need to change” policy proclaimed by the Israel government.
What is the government proposition?
The current Israeli government came to office in June 2021, after 12 years of Netanyahu. As Netanyahu supported Trumps’ “Deal of the Century” which denies the Palestinians any statehood, Israel turned down any chance of a political solution for the Palestinian problem. Now, although the the Bennet government was called the government of change (because they were able to replace Netanyahu), it continues with the policy of Netanyahu and Trump that disregards the Palestinians altogether.
PM Bennet supports the settlers, openly. So what the army is allowed to do with the permits is to create a so-called economic peace, as there is not any political solution in the horizon.
The Army says: „we will allow people to work, to have some money so they are quiet and not rebel against the occupation.” This is of course an illusion. You cannot stop the need of the youth whose future has been stolen years ago.
It is not only about working. What is the bigger perspective for them? There is none. It will explode in Israel’s face, sooner or later.
One aim is to reduce the trade of permits. However, without a fundemental change in the system it would fail. In June the authorities announced that a committee will be formed to discuss the new model of permit system. We will take part in this dicussion and to reflect the needs and ideas of workers there.
Anything else you want to add in conclusion?
MAAN is a vibrant democratic union that stand with its feet on the ground and works everyday to gain small, sometimes very small, gains for workers and poor. We are working day in and day out to organize workers – both in Israel and among Palestinians who are employed in Israel.
We put forward and educate our members on a vision of non-sectarian society where women and men from all religions and nationalities and sexual orientation can build together a modern and democratic society based on green renewable energy.
Cover photo: a Palestinian worker crosses through a breach in separation wall to reach his job in Israel. Photo by Rachel Schor.
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