Mahmoud Matter says that participating in demonstrations held by the workers’ syndicate in Gaza is his only hope to receive his wages. He has been employed by the Ministry of Health since 2010, but has not yet received a full wage.
“I go early to my work every day, and do my best to efficiently do my duty and serve my people. But instead of being honored by receiving my salary, I am left to demonstrate and shout in order to get my right of a salary,” Matter said.
He is one of tens of thousands of workers in Gaza who are offered only a small part of their salaries every fifty days or so. This has created a harsh reality for them and their families in a climate of deteriorating living conditions in the coastal enclave.
“We are blackmailed in political splits, and left prone to extortion so that our leaders can achieve their narrow political interests,” he added.
Gaza’s underpaid health, sanitation and public education workers declared a partial strike in an attempt to attract the attention of the unity government. They are calling on Rami Hamdallah, the appointed Prime Minister, to fulfill his earlier promises to settle the issue of Gaza’s workers, who had been financially neglected by the Palestinian Authority.
All demonstrations held by the workers have been directed toward the headquarters of the unity government, based in northern Gaza City. Dozens of unpaid workers took to the streets in the protests, chanting slogans to demand equity and transparency. They demanded their right to work insurance, which they argue should remain preserved regardless of political instability instead of being used as a tool within the government’s internal issues.
Mohammed Siam, head of the workers’ syndicate, holds the government in Ramallah fully accountable, since it refuses to recognize the workers’ rights to be paid from the PA budget. “It is totally unacceptable for the government to go on with this policy of denial toward Gaza’s employees. It is ultimately their right to receive their funds in a regular pattern,” Siam said.
In Gaza, there are about 45,000 workers functioning as the breadwinners for more than 250,000 people, according to the syndicate.
Teachers in the West Bank held a high-profile month-long strike of their own strike to demand full payments from the government. One excuse that the government in Ramallah gives for its failure to pay teachers is that the Palestinian Authority needs to adjust its budget in order to combat the impact from the massive Israeli attacks waged on Gaza and to expedite reconstruction efforts there.
This excuse was particularly shocking for people in Gaza, whose expectations of the government were severely defeated after the last war, in 2014. Many people in Gaza accuse the government of neglecting Gaza. But the workers’ syndicate goes further: “The government and President Mahmoud Abbas conspire against Gaza and its people. They not only abstain from helping us, but they incur more troubles when they fail to pay the workers,” Siam added.
The syndicate said that the government now owes the workers millions of dollars.
The unity government has only paid Gaza’s workers once since its formation in June of 2014. The government paid each of 24,000 workers $1,200 in October of 2014. However, payment was withheld from the remaining workers – those who were employed by the Interior Ministry rather than the unity government – despite that the State of Qatar has donated funds in order to pay them.
Reem Saher, a worker and active participant in the protests, considers the government to be responsible for her terrible circumstances. Saher, a mother of four, is often forced to rely on debts in order to meet her family’s needs. “I abandon most of my expenses,” she said. “Most of the time, we live from hand to mouth.”
Saher is not interested in government talks about Palestinian reconciliation if they will not bring an end to the workers’ crisis. “Our rights should be seen as a red line, if they still have a living conscience,” she said.
The intractable issue bears many repercussions because it began in 2007, when Hamas employed thousands of new workers to replace those who were refusing to work under the new government. At the time, these workers were urged by the PA not to work if they wanted to receive their usual salaries. Due to disagreements over the Syrian crisis, Hamas then severed ties with Iran, which had previously been a main ally of the Islamic organization. The Palestinian government’s financial resources and revenue were exhausted as a result.