Hani Abu Talal is a man on a mission.
The 34-year-old laborer spends his days pounding the streets of the Nuseirat refugee camp in the central Gaza Strip for any new construction projects to which he might lend his body and time.
His is the lot of a day laborer. His luck lies in the hands of the rare on-site foreman with something to offer. His mission is near impossible. This is Gaza: it has the world’s highest unemployment rate.
“Landing a job happens only once in a blue moon,” Abu Talal said. “I just look for any chance to get some work and make some money.”
The odd day’s work also does not guarantee respite from grinding poverty. A father of five, Abu Talal says he is lucky if a full day’s hard physical labor earns him more than 30 shekels (just under $8).
“Construction is hard work,” Abu Talal told The Electronic Intifada. “But instead of being fairly paid, we are blackmailed; we are told that wages cannot be higher because of the lack of stability in the local economy.”
From time to time, Israel allows through a shipment of construction materials, causing a mini-spike in activity. But the wages remain the same, and Abu Talal worries that should a situation ever arise where construction enjoys a sustained boom, employers will simply keep wages low.
“If any worker dares to ask for an increase, he can be fired. So we continue to work without complaint. But that does not mean to leave us alone. We have rights. We need them respected.”
What few shekels Abu Talal makes at the end of a day are barely sufficient to pay the owner of his local grocery store from where his family get their essentials. As for the future? There are no savings. There is only constant, nagging fear, he said, that one of his children should one day need urgent medical care.
Awad Baker is a contractor and one of those from whom Abu Talal would seek work. Most of his construction projects are in the central Gaza Strip, the same area where Abu Talal ekes out his living. He lays the blame for low wages and the lack of job opportunities squarely on the economic blockade that Israel has imposed on Gaza since 2007.
“We have sustained so many losses due to the siege that we are all heavily in debt,” Baker told The Electronic Intifada. “These have to be repaid.”
Where construction materials are rare, they become more expensive. The balance is borne by labor. Contractors rely heavily on cheap, unskilled labor, which in turn affects quality. And the longer that continues, the less skilled the workers, said Baker.
After nearly 10 years under siege, Baker added, “our workers’ skills have plummeted to the extent that it affects the quality of our work. Our sector is devastated.”
The combination of the blockade and successive Israeli military assaults saw construction output in 2014, year of the last major Israeli offensive, fall by a staggering 83 percent, according to the World Bank.
Economist Maher al-Tabaa, head of Gaza’s Chamber of Commerce, put it in stark terms: “When we have a very restricted number of jobs for hundreds of thousands of workers, wages decrease. The blockade has denied the local economy access to many jobs and options are limited for our workers.”
With this oversupply of labor, al-Tabaa said, workers are more likely to accept work that doesn’t pay a fair wage.
But Sami al-Amasi, head of the Palestinian General Federation of Trade Unions in Gaza, says the siege is not the only factor responsible for the desperate situation of local workers.
He also fingered the policies of the now defunct Palestinian unity government which, he said, early in its tenure in 2014, canceled training and employment programs that could have helped people back to work.
The unity government was formed after an agreement between Hamas and Fatah in June 2014, but was beset by mutual suspicions from the start. A year later, it resigned, and since then Mahmoud Abbas, the Palestinian Authority leader, has twice unilaterally reshuffled the cabinet. Though Hamas rejected both reshuffles, the government is still called a consensus government.
Temporary employment and professional training programs had in the past helped mitigate the unemployment crisis, al-Amasi said, and were intended to serve workers in all sectors, including construction.
Their cancellation, he said, marked not only a failure of policy — which continues under the present Palestinian Authority administration — but also showed a “disregard” for Gaza and its population.
Al-Amasi also said there had been a failure to implement existing laws on workers’ rights, citing legislation for a minimum monthly wage of 1,450 shekels (approximately $380).
Not just the money
Construction worker Adham Abdelrahman, 39, receives less than 800 shekels per month. He works a grueling 12-hour day on average. He also had no idea that the law set a minimum wage of almost twice the amount he earns.
“I have never been paid this much. What’s the point of laws if they are not implemented?”
He said he was skeptical that officials have his interests or rights at heart.
And pay is not the only issue facing construction workers. Safety regulations are rarely implemented, workers have no health insurance and they are unlikely to receive any compensation in case of on-site accidents.
Salem al-Bashiti, 44, suffered a workplace accident four years ago that left one arm partially paralyzed.
“I was lucky that my contractor was a kind man who helped me cover some of the costs of treatment. But I know many who were abandoned without even some words of consolation after their accidents,” he said.
He looks forward to a day, he said, when construction workers could enjoy not only rights enshrined in law and enforced on site, but more general recognition.
“We work hard to serve and build our country. We deserve to be honored and treated well,” he said.
Isra Saleh el-Namey is a journalist in Gaza.