A social security law that came into effect at the beginning of November is causing controversy among Palestinians in spite of amendments forced through by civil society groups.
Thousands have taken to the streets in the occupied West Bank city of Ramallah – the latest demonstrations were on 30 November and 1 December – to protest against what is the first law of its kind under the Palestinian Authority.
The demonstrations came in spite of broad support for the law from civil society organizations. Many of these organizations worked hard to amend the original law to better serve employees and workers.
They now worry that employers have exploited widespread distrust of the PA to set potential beneficiaries against a law they concede is not perfect, but which most see as a positive development.
The law was drafted in 2016 by a team of representatives from the government, private sector and trade unions. It is meant to provide social security coverage – including pension plans, provisions for maternity leave as well as accident coverage – to employees in the private and nongovernmental organization sectors, who make up a majority of the Palestinian workforce.
Until now, private sector employees received an “end of service” bonus after leaving work, which included a one-month wage for each year worked. This served as de facto retirement pay, but will now be replaced by pensions from the social security fund.
Initial iterations proved controversial in 2016, in part, said Iyad Riyahi, a researcher with Al-Marsad, a Ramallah-based economic policy monitoring group, because of the drafters. The three groups of representatives all belonged to the same powerful class, he told The Electronic Intifada.
“The official trade unions are integrated in the government, and the private sector and the government are very much alike.”
The three groups wrote the law to their own liking, without any public participation, he said, prompting a backlash that took the shape of the National Campaign for Social Security, a pressure group led by leftist trade unions, civil society, women’s groups and youth organizations.
Amendments fail to convince
Through protests that mobilized thousands, the campaign managed to pressure authorities into making changes to the original text.
Amendments included a change in the amount that workers and employers would contribute to the social security fund. Workers’ contributions were reduced to 7 percent from 7.5 percent, while contributions from employers rose to 9 percent from 8.5 percent.
The new draft included a guaranteed income for people with disabilities and a longer guaranteed maternity leave for women.
“Before this, women could maybe take one week off after having a baby,” Riyahi said.
Another clause was also added to block the government from accessing the social security fund, which will be kept in 13 different Palestinian banks.
“There are many fears about [official] corruption,” said Riyahi. “But, in fact, the government will not be able to touch the money.”
In spite of these changes, many remain deeply suspicious of the law.
During the latest demonstrations, thousands chanted to “let the social security law fall,” and many expressed anger that the legislation was being brought in the absence of economic stability and national unity.
“The most important point that people are protesting is that there is no stability,” said a 44-year-old man attending the protests who preferred not to give his name or his employment other than that he worked in the private sector.
“A social security law can be good in an economically stable country, where people’s income is enough to contribute to the fund,” he said. This, he added, is not the case for Palestinians. “Many people have very low incomes and now it feels like they are going to lose more.”
Ayman Dahbour, 30, also attended the protest. A financial auditor, he said he was fiercely opposed to the law. “We don’t have a democracy and we don’t have a state,” he told The Electronic Intifada. “Laws cannot be written in the absence of the legislative council.”
The Palestinian Legislative Council has not convened since the Hamas-Fatah split of 2007, after Hamas won elections for the legislative branch of government. As a result, legislation is pushed through under presidential decree, something that angers some protesters.
“The government is exploiting the situation,” Anas, 25, said, interrupting Dahbour. He preferred not to give his last name or profession but said the government is writing legislation in the form of presidential decrees. “This is usually only for emergency situations, and this is not an emergency situation,” he said.
“The idea of social security is good,” said a supermarket manager in Ramallah who did not want to give his name and did not attend the protests.
He had, however, done his sums, and found the law wanting.
“The law, as it is now, is unfair. After 15 or 20 years of service, I will receive 1,200 shekels [approximately $320] in retirement per month. This is not enough. I pay 1,500 shekels [$405] in bills every month. This retirement will not be enough for me to live a decent life.”
He also worried about what would happen to the money.
“Who will protect the social security fund?” he asked, confessing little trust in the PA.
“The social security fund will be held in the banks. What if the banks lose our money? Who will hold the thieves accountable?”
The manager said there are many stories of the PA not holding criminals or corrupt officials to account. “How can I trust them with my money?”
The lack of trust in the PA is one of the main motivations behind opposition to the law but has also led to a number of claims of questionable veracity. One protester argued that even though both he and his wife had worked all their lives, only one of them would be eligible for a pension under the new law, a widely circulated assertion that Riyahi labeled as a “lie” created by the private sector.
“Of course both spouses will receive pensions if they worked,” he told The Electronic Intifada.
The fact that the claim has gained traction points to the huge deficit of trust people generally hold in the PA.
“There is a big gap between the people and their leaders,” Ashraf Abu Hayya, a lawyer with the Palestinian rights group Al-Haq, said. “There is no trust in the government.”
Some believe that that mistrust has been exploited by employers who have encouraged workers to protest. Employers would rather not contribute to the social security fund or pay their employees higher wages.
The new law entails that employers who underpay their staff will face greater costs since no employee can be registered at less than minimum wage – and if they are, penalties would accrue under the labor law – setting a minimum for an employer’s social security contribution per employee. Riyahi told The Electronic Intifada that thousands of workers are paid only $200 per month, far below the $395 minimum wage.
The law, if properly implemented, would consequently affect many employers. According to the Palestinian Central Bureau of Statistics, in the West Bank more than 15 percent of private sector employees receive less than the minimum monthly wage.
The law would also, in theory, apply to Gaza. But because of the Palestinian division – as well as the decimation of the private sector in Gaza due to Israel’s blockade – no one expects its implementation there, at least until a unity agreement is reached.
Possible penalties for underpaying employees as well as employers’ contributions under the new law have spooked the private sector, according to civil society groups.
“The private sector did not think that the law would actually be implemented. When they saw it might, they panicked,” said Abu Hayya.
“Suddenly they became very supportive of democracy and encouraged workers to protest. They gave them days off to attend demonstrations and even provided transportation,” Abu Hayya said. While widely rumored, these claims could not be independently verified.
Riyahi pointed out that almost all Palestinian media are privately owned, allowing employers the means to convince workers that the government simply wants to steal from them.
Those protesting don’t view themselves as being manipulated by employers, but rather see government and business owners as the powers-that-be enforcing an unpopular law. Anas said he thought the media were not covering their opposition fairly.
For Anas, the fact that so many are protesting is proof of the legitimacy of protesters’ grievances.
“The protests have brought all kinds of people together, of all political convictions. Even Islamists. No political party would be able to do that.”
Riyahi, however, maintains the law is a positive development.
“Of course the law needs more adjustments,” he told The Electronic Intifada. “But the changes made in 2016 were very positive. We worked hard for them.”
He said different organizations were planning to exert further pressure on the PA to change percentages further so that employers contribute 10 percent and workers 6 percent.
But protesters cited other reasons for their discontent.
“The law does not take into account our unique situation,” Dahbour said. Palestinians from Jerusalem contribute to an Israeli social security fund, he pointed out. Those working in the West Bank will now also be forced to pay for a Palestinian social security fund.
“And what about people who move abroad?” Dahbour asked.
Abu Hayya recognized the current law left some uncertainty. But, he said by his figuring, those gaps could be addressed through further pressure on the government. Calling for a complete cancellation of the law was counterproductive, he argued.
Basma al-Batat, from An-Najdeh, a women’s rights group, suggested other reasons for workers to mistrust the new law.
“Seventy percent of the labor law has not been implemented because of the weakness of the trade unions,” al-Batat said. “Why would people trust that their money is in good hands now?”
“Many are scared,” Abu Hayya conceded, though he argued that the new law has strong mechanisms to ensure it will be properly enforced. “But they often don’t know the contents of the law.”
The concept of social security is also fairly new in Palestine.
“Many only look at the fact that they have to pay, instead of at the collective benefit,” Abu Hayya said. “They don’t understand that all will benefit from this. They only ask: why should I have to pay for someone else’s maternity leave?”
Al-Batat said that protests against the law – often calling for its cancellation – make it difficult to mobilize for better legislation. “They push us in a corner saying that we support the government, rather than understanding that we support people obtaining their rights.”
Ibrahim Yousef works on a construction site in Ramallah. While he said he did not know the specifics, he was broadly in support of the law even if he felt it could be better.
“Social security is a very good idea, it protects us in our old age,” he said.
His co-worker Adnan, who chose not to give his family name, agreed.
“The law is good. It’s good for old people to have pensions paid when they retire,” he told The Electronic Intifada. “The adjustments from 2016 were positive. But it can be even better.”
Annelies Keuleers is a Belgian journalist based in Ramallah.