GENEVA — Despite a new climate of dialogue among Israelis and Palestinians, conditions of life for workers and their families in the occupied Arab territories continue to be extremely hard, according to a report issued by the International Labour Office (ILO).
While domestic output grew in 2004 following four years of recession in the Palestinian economy, the unemployment rate in the occupied Arab territories increased to close to 26 per cent, reaching a record 224,000 unemployed, says the report which was prepared for the ILO’s International Labour Conference which opens its annual 15-day session here on 31 May.
Unemployment is not the only concern, however, because the very low rates of labour force participation and employment have become an inherent characteristic of the labour market in the occupied territories. According to the report, fewer than half of all men of working age and only 10 per cent of women of working age are employed. As a result, every employed person in the region supports six persons in the total population.
The findings of the report are based on missions sent to Israel and the occupied Arab territories and to the Syrian Arab Republic in order to assess the situation of workers of the occupied Arab territories, including the West Bank, the Gaza Strip and the Golan.
“The mission observed a prevailing feeling that the economic situation of Palestinians must rapidly improve in order for them to continue to support the policy of dialogue and negotiation with Israel”, the report says. “This calls for a rapid lifting of closures, better access to the Israeli labour market, and improved trade facilities, as well as putting an end to discrimination against Arab people in the occupied Syrian Golan”.
The report drew particular attention to the youth unemployment rate of 40 per cent among 15 to 24-year-olds, which is one-and-a-half times the aggregate rate.
One in three young persons aged 15-24 years and over half of those aged 25-29 years are in forced idleness, that is neither studying nor in employment, says the report, adding “idleness among young people faced with military occupation makes a fertile breeding ground for extremism and violence. This situation requires urgent attention in the form of significant assistance in vocational training, business development and employment orientation specifically directed at young women and men”.
In 2004, 57 per cent of all wage workers in the occupied territories received monthly wages that failed to lift a family of two adults and four children above the official poverty line. Approximately half of the population, 1.8 million persons, live below the national poverty threshold.
According to the report, the disengagement plan announced by Israel aiming to reduce the number of Palestinian workers in Israel to zero by 2008 could severely restrict income opportunities and the prospects of poverty alleviation. “Even with strong economic growth and employment creation in the coming years, the full absorption of 39,000 new yearly entrants into the labour market, plus a considerable reduction of existing unemployment, are a daunting task”, warns the report.
Restriction of movement of Palestinian workers through closure including the separation barrier has thrown some 150,000 of them into unemployment since the onset of the second intifada in September 2000. According to the report, employment in Israel is essential until the Palestinian economy reaches a sustainable rate of growth that will generate domestic employment in proportion to the increase in the labour force.
“The ILO mission heard from Israeli employers that Palestinian workers are needed and welcome, provided that security requirements are met”, the report says. “The time may be right for the negotiation of a new agreement between the two sides detailing the framework of employment opportunities for Palestinians in Israel.”
The Report also points to practical action the ILO and its constituents, governments, employers’ and workers’ organisations, can take to promote better conditions of life in the occupied territories. The ILO mission witnessed a strong will for dialogue among both Palestinian and Israeli trade unions.
The findings of the ILO mission call for a focus on youth employment, gender equality and vocational training but also stress the need for basic social security for older workers who cannot retire because of the lack of a pension system.
They also highlight the need for the Palestinian Fund for Employment and Social Protection - which the ILO helped to launch - to become a fully integrated tool in the economic and social policies of the Palestinian Authority. The Fund was established in 2004 by the Palestinian Authority to provide a strategic framework for activities undertaken to generate employment and provide social protection.