Palestinian workers walk past the Stars and Bucks coffee shop in Manara Square, September 2013 in Ramallah, West Bank. (Ilia Yefimovich/Getty Images)

Palestinian Labor Unions Demand Higher Pay

West Bank doctors, engineers and teachers impose sanctions

Members of the Palestinian doctors, teachers and engineers unions in the West Bank have been phasing in work sanctions since last week, demanding benefits they say are due them under Palestinian law.

The doctors this Tuesday stopped performing most work in hospitals and outpatient clinics, including non-emergency operations, with physicians ending routine work at 11 in the morning. However, the physicians are still caring for emergency cases and stand ready to do whatever is necessary if the Wuhan coronavirus reaches the West Bank.

All three unions are under heavy criticism from political parties about the timing of their measures, given that the Palestinian Authority is going through a difficult economic and political time.

In addition, many institutions and organizations are saying that Palestinians need to be united more than ever in the face of the epidemic coronavirus that began in China in December and the American peace plan for the Middle East that was unveiled on January 28.

Shawki Sabha, the head of the Palestinian Doctors’ Union, told The Media Line that their demands are purely related to their rights as workers, and relate to small categories of doctors, for example “the Jerusalem allowance; it concerns two doctors, so the cost is very small. We took normal steps related to our rights … and they are trying to denigrate our patriotism because of this.”

The union’s demands include raising the premium for work as general practitioners to 200% retroactively, and canceling the Doctor of Optometry program announced by the Arab American University, which the union considers “blatant interference” in the practice of ophthalmology.

Sabha explained such a program was previously proposed by Nablus’s An-Najah University in 2015, and rejected. Moreover, the Arab American University program isn’t authorized to graduate doctors under the Palestinian health law. “It’s more of a business investment and exploitation, given that the school charges $210 (150 Jordanian dinars) per academic hour,” he said.

The Palestinian Hotels Association said that the Doctors’ Union should suspend its strike, especially since the coronavirus is spreading in many countries.

The Fatah movement called on the union to be “reasonable, responsible,” “and to suspend the strike in order to preserve the interests of the Palestinian people and homeland, and to take into account the [Israeli] blockade and ‘narrowing,’ as well as the systematic piracy against the Palestinian people and its legitimate leadership.”

Jalal al-Deek, the head of the Palestinian Engineers’ Union, told The Media Line his members demanded that certain parts of Palestinian law that haven’t been implemented be enforced, within the current system.

“We understand that the situation is difficult, but we need to find a way to achieve the workers’ rights within a framework based on law,” Deek continued. “The union is open to discussion and negotiation.”

He pointed out that the Engineers’ Union has started its protest steps gradually, not radically, “meaning that the economic circumstances of the country concern us, but we demand justice.”

Ali Jarbawi, a professor of political science at Birzeit University, north of Ramallah, and a former Palestinian Authority higher education minister, told The Media Line that although the unions’ moves were linked to human needs without any political dimension, the timing was wrong. “But at the same time, we can’t judge people based on when they demand their rights,” he said.

Jarbawi stressed that even without the American peace proposal and the threat of the coronavirus, the Palestinian government was in a difficult situation financially, and that therefore it could not meet the unions’ demands. “The unions didn’t consider this aspect of the situation,” he said.

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