Unemployment, poverty grips Palestinian workers

Palestinians waiting in line at a checkpoint (Ronald de Hommel)

GENEVA -– High unemployment continues to grip Palestinian communities in the Occupied Arab Territories, reaching an average of 35 per cent, the International Labour Office (ILO) says in a new report.

A recent high-level mission to the area also found that “severe restrictions” on the movement of persons, goods and services were causing “severe losses in production, employment and income, a report on the situation of workers of the Occupied Arab Territories said.

“The reality of life in the territories is one of strangulation of the economy.” ILO Director-General Juan Somavia said in a preface to the report. “Poverty continues to grip Palestinian communities, relieved only by large-scale international assistance.”

Unemployment in the last quarter of 2003 hit 20.7 per cent in the West Bank and 31.9 per cent in Gaza, a slight improvement over 2002, the report said, adding that close to 290,000 persons – 89 per cent of whom are men – were unemployed or discouraged from looking for work. It added “this suggests an expanded unemployment rate of 35.3 per cent, a number which would be even higher if women confined to their homes by necessity and not by choice were included”.

The report said the actual number of Palestinians from the West Bank and Gaza working in Israel is highly dependent on the continuously changing Israeli restrictions on the movement of persons within the occupied territories and into Israel. Noting that “a valid work permit is no guarantee of actual employment, particularly for those workers who have to enter Israel to work”, the report said restrictions on mobility continue to intensify because of the new West Bank separation wall.

“The delays, increased costs and loss of earnings that result from road closures, prolonged security checks and curfews hamper economic activity of all kinds, thus reducing family incomes,” Mr. Somavia said. “No sustained recovery of the economy is possible while this situation prevails.”

Nevertheless, the report also cited some improved mobility in the West bank, but in some areas the situation “clearly remains volatile”. One out of three Palestinians said reaching their place of work was “difficult, very difficult or impossible” in March, compared to 50 per cent in August 2003. In Gaza, 14.4 per cent said they had problems with mobility compared to nearly 30 per cent last August.

The economy of Israel, meanwhile, pulled out of recession in 2003 with a growth in GDP of 1.2 per cent, thanks to a “vigorous increase in exports and higher domestic consumer confidence”, the report said. Nevertheless, a major element in Israel’s fiscal deficit of -5.7 per cent of GDP was the cost of the occupation, the report said, including expenditure on the separation wall. Despite a pickup in 2003, “prolonged high unemployment in Israel has led to a sharp increase in poverty”, it added. “The number of families living below the poverty line is estimated at 18.1 per cent in 2002, reaching 44.7 per cent among the non-Jewish population – particularly the Arab population”.

The ILO has an ongoing technical cooperation programme for the Occupied Arab Territories, centred around strengthening the capacity of employers’ and workers’ organizations and the Ministry of Labour for promoting social dialogue as a requirement for peace and has allocated US$1 million to the Palestinian Fund for Employment and Social Protection. The Fund is the umbrella for the coordination of all financial and technical assistance for employment creation in the West Bank and Gaza.

The ILO Mission concluded that, “development strategies for the Palestinian economy have to focus on rebuilding the internal labour market. As this will take time, a complementary strategy for Palestinian work in Israel and in other countries is necessary”.

The report places special emphasis on the gender dimensions of the situation of workers, and highlights the role of Palestinian women in holding together families and communities. It added that development strategies for the Palestinian economy should “aim to realize the full productive capacity of women, given their high educational qualifications” and recommended the establishment of an inter-ministerial working group to develop a national women’s employment strategy that would be integrated into the overall employment strategy of the Palestinian Authority.

Related Links

  • The situation of workers of the occupied Arab Territories (PDF) International Labour Office (May 2004)
  • New ILO report sees further economic and social deterioration in the occupied territories, ILO (14 July 2003)