Gaza companies exploit graduates desperate for work

A man stands with a tray in front of a small wooden booth

Saeed Saeed, a public relations graduate, readies himself to serve tea for customers at his “Graduates’ Cafe.” More than 70 percent of young university graduates in Gaza are unemployed. 

Youssef Abu Watfa APA images

Rami Bulbul came top of his class when he graduated in media studies from Gaza’s University College of Applied Sciences in 2021.

Like most graduates, the 24-year-old has dreams of a better life. And like most graduates in Gaza, he tempers those dreams with the reality of living under a tight Israeli siege that has decimated the economy over more than 15 years.

But even then he is appalled at the behavior of some companies in Gaza who, he says, have taken full advantage of having a large number of unemployed graduates to pick from for unpaid internships.

“I volunteered in two media companies, working from 9:00 am to 9:00 pm, getting nothing in return. Even if the companies have vacancies, we were excluded from the hiring process,”

Internships – or voluntary work, as it is sometimes called in Gaza – have become increasingly common. Companies are as cash-strapped as workers, and some say voluntary work is a win-win for both sides: it helps the community in terms of job training, psychological support, even shelter for some, and fills vacancies institutions are otherwise unable to pay for.

Bulbul disagrees and wants legislation to stop companies taking advantage.

He interned with a media company, which he declined to name, precisely in order to get on-the-job training and understand the challenges he might face in his career in the future.

But during the 2021 assault on the Gaza Strip, the tower block in which the company had its offices was bombed and completely destroyed. With the COVID-19 pandemic and general economic malaise, the company never reopened and Bulbul lost his position along with 14 others, who were also part of the voluntary team.

“We were 15 interns who were learning about the job and what challenges journalists face. None of us asked for anything.”

That didn’t stop the company from listing them all as employees to secure compensation from the authorities. The money – $1,000 each – went straight to the interns themselves, however.

“The hiring manager started to threaten us and kept asking for the money,” Bulbul told The Electronic Intifada.

None of the former interns complied, however. None of them had ever gotten anything from the company.

“We had been asking for transportation fees, pocket money or even the opportunity to work in the company in the future. We got nothing.”

Bulbul said that even if volunteers are not seeking money but only want to help their communities, organizations should still show some appreciation by providing a safe work environment that guarantees volunteers’ rights.

He is seeking enforceable sanctions against those who would exploit graduates. As a minimum, organizations should pay costs and treat people with a little dignity.

“We need legislation. We need to be protected by law,” Bulbul, now a paid intern with UNRWA, the UN agency for Palestine refugees, said. “The ministry of labor is responsible for violations by managers in charge of hiring. Volunteers should not be exploited due to their need for work.”

Law reform needed

According to the Palestinian Central Bureau of Statistics, the unemployment rate for young graduates, aged 19-29, who hold an associate diploma certificate or higher, stands at just under 50 percent across the occupied West Bank and Gaza.

But that figure hides the true situation in Gaza, where youth graduate unemployment runs just above 70 percent.

Wala Jonina holds a degree in digital media from University College of Applied Sciences. She has been interning since 2019.

Until now, however, and despite the significant experience she has amassed over the years, she has yet to receive a job offer.

“I was trained in a media institution, working from 8 am to 4 pm,” the 32-year-old mother of two told The Electronic Intifada. “I truly believed that with hard work, my efforts would pay off.”

All in vain, she continued, discovering instead that she made a convenient scapegoat during times of pressure.

“The manager would blame me for any mistake. Sometimes, I had to work at home to finish all my tasks. Once I asked for some time off. He said one day would have to be enough, as we were under pressure.”

Jonina is particularly upset at a promise she made to her father that she is unable to keep. It was her father’s meager wages as a laborer that put her through university.

“I promised him that once I graduated, I would compensate him and support him financially. Unfortunately, I couldn’t.”

Nevertheless, she has not given up on her dream to open her own company.

“I don’t want to be exploited anymore. I want to stop worrying about my future, be independent, and enjoy a decent life.”

Some are advocating a change in the labor law.

Lawyer Muhammad Abu Dayyah said Palestinian labor law did not contain any guidance on the matter. His law firm, Alsalah, regularly receives complaints from interns and volunteers, he told The Electronic Intifada.

“It would be highly recommended to consider volunteering as a contractual promise. We receive many complaints about institutions exploiting young graduates, and not even offering contract work upon the expiry of the volunteering period.”

Abu Dayyah suggested that the law should stipulate what the obligations of institutions that take on volunteers are, in order to stop exploitative practices.

A job with dignity

Ahmad, 28, has a master’s degree in business administration, but has been unable to get a paying job.

Instead he has volunteered as an administrative assistant for different companies over a three-year-period, all to no avail.

“We have no future here in Gaza,” said Ahmad, who did not want to give his real name for this article. “Sometimes I think about emigrating to somewhere where I can find a job that preserves my dignity.”

Ahmad said the volunteering sector was becoming a trap for most graduates.

“We are being exploited under the pretext that we don’t have any experience. And yet, after I gained enough experience, the manager of the institution I volunteered with at the time, told me they couldn’t hire me because they didn’t have the funds.”

Ahmad believes there is also a problem in an education system that doesn’t include work experience placements as part of the graduation requirements.

According to a 2016 study conducted by Al-Quds Open University, there is significant correlation between internships organized by universities and later job prospects.

“I studied at three different universities, for my undergraduate degree, my master’s and my diploma,” Ahmad told The Electronic Intifada. “None of the universities had any volunteering programs for students.”

Ahmad argued that including volunteer work or internships as part of the degree should reduce the amount of time graduates spend working for free after finishing their studies.

“Instead of wasting time after graduation, universities should include volunteer work in their curricula so graduates are ready for the job market when they finish,” Ahmad said.

Yasmin Abusayma is a freelance writer and translator from Gaza, Palestine.