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Working under occupation: transport workers in the West Bank

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Working under occupation: transport workers in the West Bank

'As a sector, we have really felt the effects of the occupation. At the checkpoints, there can be several hours of waiting, sometimes in the heat which can really affect the goods that you are carrying. There is no free traffic movement for truck drivers.'

There can be no sector of work or community population in the West Bank that has not been affected by the Israeli occupation of Palestinian territory. Specific impacts may wax and wane over time but the consequences can be felt throughout the West Bank. Transport workers - taxi drivers, bus drivers, truck drivers and others - have been especially hit by the security situation and the checkpoints that litter the West Bank.

After the end of the PGFTU's women's department conference, I grabbed a few minutes with Neda Abuzant, a co-ordinator in the PGFTU's women committee in Nablus and part of the national executive committee of transport workers union.

Neda explained some of the consequences for truck drivers and other transport workers whose job requires them to make deliveries throughout the West Bank and into Israel too.

She told me: 'As a sector, we have really felt the effects of the occupation. At the checkpoints, there can be several hours of waiting, sometimes in the heat which can really affect the goods that you are carrying. There is no free traffic movement for truck drivers. At the green line (the border between the West Bank and Israel), at the main gates the trucks have to stop and we run a back-to back system where the goods are carried across the border and an empty truck on the other side is filled up with the goods from the truck. This can take a few hours and we have to do it in all weather. It can cause a lot of stress amongst workers.'

Israeli checkpoint in the West Bank

Later when I crossed back from the West Bank into Israel, I could experience just a little of this. It was about 5pm on a Saturday evening and the traffic queue took an hour or so to get to the border. When we approached, two heavily armed security guards checked the papers of everyone on board. Later the bus pulled in, and we all had to get off, be checked again, and then new people joined the bus and we were able to continue on our way. It was a confusing and intimidating situation.

Neda continues: 'The occupation also makes the cost of transport very high. There are high costs because of the long waiting hours or the fact that people have to go on longer routes. It used to take 4-5 hours to just go 30 kilometres which would normally be one hour.'

'On both the Israeli and Jordanian sides, the trucks are often totally stripped down. Brand new trucks are destroyed to ensure 'security'. So the leather seats are taken out and you sit just on metal. The engine box has holes in it so the security forces can look in. They even take the tyres off to check them.'

This situation continues today, although it is also true to say that things may be easing a little. There was one checkpoint we passed outside Ramallah which was deserted and my Palestinian colleague said for him that had been the first time in ten years that that was the case.

To improve the situation for Palestinian truck drivers, the International Transport Federation has recently funded the opening of a rest stop for drivers which gives them shelter plus access to toilets and a cafe for their long waits at the border.

Neda Abuzant

Neda and I continue our conversation and I ask her what it is like to be a woman working in a male dominated sector like transport.

'We are very few in number in the transport sector and for a woman to be a professional driver is unusual. I joined the union in 2003. I am a driving school teacher and at that time I already had a baby and it was not easy to get proper time off. I went to the union to complain and they solved the problem and followed up so I joined.'

'After I joined the union, I went to different activities and workshops and field visits to visit different workplaces. In 2007 I was elected as a coordinator by women members. One of the challenges as a woman is to make a change in society and accept women in unusual sectors. This has given me the energy. I have attended international conferences and I have met lots of other activists from the global trade union movement and this has given me a lot of strength.'

Later in the week on Friday, the traditional day off for workers, I attended a meeting of a branch of the Nablus transport workers union. The branch covers taxi drivers working on one of 11 routes in Nablus. The union often meets on a Friday or Saturday, when people are more able to get time off from work, and the group was about 30 men, some of whom brought there young children too. Resources are tight, and we met in a building which was under construction, at the top of the valley with a lovely view over the city as the sun started to set.

Nablus at sunset

We were addressed first of all by Nasser Younis, President of the national Transport Workers Union; the meeting needed to elect a couple of new representatives to the local workers' committee.

'It's very important the role of the workers committee. We can take up problems with the traffic police, or problems with the municipality, we can follow up with them. But to do this we need to be organised and to share out the workload. We have good opportunities if we work together to solve the problems. This is not a one man show - we have joint responsibilities and we need to work together.'

'For example, when we had gas price increases, we had pressure and demonstrations on the authorities. Before the yearly tax for a driver was 10,000 shekels, but we managed to reduce it to 2500 shekels. We achieved this as we worked hard and seriously.'

Members of the transport workers union

'It's very important to remember we are part of the society we are talking about. We might want to increase the transport fees that people pay, but people have limited salaries and we need to keep a balance between all the needs of society.'

'We have a five person workers' committee on this line but two have recently quit as they have moved to a new area, and it is very important that we elect another two. This is a very important role to follow-up with members and to be in active connections with the branches of the union.'

After some discussion, two men were nominated or volunteer themselves and they were duly elected on a show of hands from the members gathered.

Samir Abu Jasser started driving in 1988 and said: 'I did not have a plan to stand for election when I came here today. I was informed of the meeting and some people asked me to do it but I was not encouraged as it was a lot of work and a heavy responsibility to defend workers rights. When I realised that the majority of workers supported and trusted me, then I agreed to do it. The key role will be for me to follow up with members working on this route, to organise, to be more positive and to have respectable relations with the drivers and the committees. This is a crowded neighbourhood and there are a lot of women and children here who we have direct contact with. The contact needs to be positive as we see the same people every day and we need to have good relations.'

Ahmjad Al-Bakker, the leader of the workers' committee, who was attending the meeting with his young son Abdullah, said: 'Ten years ago we started this workers' committee and it was the first one in this neighbourhood. Through the connection with unions, through meetings and trainings, we have started to have more capacity, to understand how to organise ourselves to create better results. Our first goal is to organise the sector - to defend the rights that we already have and then to respond to workers needs.'

The newly elected transport workers' committee members

You can read more about the work of the PGFTU to organise and support women here

You can read more about the brand new Kindergarten workers union and their plans for the future here

You can read more about the health sector union, low wages and the gender pay gap here

Vicky Cann

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