Paul Howes, the Histadrut and Boycotts, Divestments and Sanctions of Israel

In 2005, Palestinian civil society called for solidarity from the international community and people within Israel for the institution of boycotts, divestments and sanctions against Israel similar to those instituted against apartheid South Africa until Israel recognises the right of Palestinian people for self-determination and conforms with international law. The call is supported by Palestinian political parties, unions, associations, coalitions and organizations representing the three integral parts of the people of Palestine: Palestinian refugees, Palestinians under occupation and Palestinian citizens of Israel.

These non-violent punitive measures should be maintained until Israel meets its obligation to recognize the Palestinian people’s inalienable right to self-determination and fully complies with the precepts of international law by:

1. Ending its occupation and colonization of all Arab lands and dismantling the Wall;
2. Recognizing the fundamental rights of the Arab-Palestinian citizens of Israel to full equality; and
3. Respecting, protecting and promoting the rights of Palestinian refugees to return to their homes and properties as stipulated in UN resolution 194.

As Australian trade unions prepare to take a motion for BDS to the ACTU, it is important for Australian workers to understand why it is essential to support boycotts, divestments and sanctions against Israel in solidarity with Palestinian trade unions, including the Palestinian General Federation of Trade Unions (PGFTU) .

The trade union boycott works very like the consumer boycott or divestment campaign at an institutional level. It means that trade unions cut economic, social and political ties with Israel and build ties with Palestinian unions. Much the same as the huge role they took on in fighting against Apartheid South Africa, their emphasis on international workers solidarity can be a real rallying cry against Israeli Apartheid.

Trade unions need to be informed about the discriminatory nature of Israel’s Histadrut, which from its inception aimed to replace Arab workers with Jewish ones under a “conquest of labour” policy. Israel’s occupation aims to further conquer Palestinian labour through a series of joint industrial zones wherein Palestinians will essentially work as migrant workers on their own land for low wages in poor conditions without the option to organise. The Histadrut is the only trade union in Israel and continues to work on a racist framework that leaves Palestinian workers facing apartheid labour conditions in Israel itself.

To support BDS, trade unions can pass motions, measures and resolutions condemning Israeli occupation and apartheid; promote a consumer boycott among their members and citizens; change purchasing
and investment policy to ensure that trade unions are not contributing financially to the occupation; and partner with Palestinian unions.

Australians for Palestine have prepared an excellent BDS Manual for download.

The Israeli labour organisation, the Histadrut, is first and foremost a state-allied endeavour rather than a worker organisation. As Zureik says:

It is a mistake to equate the Histadrut with other, secular and universalist, trade union movements of this century. While one of the aims was to improve the conditions of the Jewish working class in Palestine, its raison d’etre was to ensure the creation of a jewish state, with Arab-Jewish working-class solidarity a secondary factor. After all, it was under the auspices of the Histadrut that the underground Zionist military force, the Haganah, was established.


“However, the evolving labour bureaucracy is not to be confused with those of Western Europe or the US [or Australia]. It was not the product of a mass workers movement; rather it was always an integral part of an expressedly nationalist movement. Its task was not solely to divert working class struggles, but to eliminate part of the working class (the Palestinian Arabs) from labour market competition in order to accomplish the two-pronged state building programme of the Zionist movement – ‘conquest of labour/conquest of land’.”

The Histadrut, which approved of the outrageous Israeli Cast Lead massacre of the Gazan people in 2009, also actively supported the South African apartheidists.

Iskoor steel company, 51 percent owned by Histadrut’s Koor Industries and 49 percent by the South African Steel Corporation, manufactured steel for South Africa’s armed forces. Partly finished steel was shipped from Israel to South Africa, enabling the apartheid state to escape tariffs. [7]

Other Histadrut companies such as Tadiran and Soltam were equally complicit in supplying South Africa with weaponry. [8] Histadrut also helped build the electronic wall between South Africa/Namibia and neighboring African states in order to keep the guerrillas out. [9] It was a precursor of Israel’s wall in the West Bank.

Pinhas Lavon, secretary-general of Histadrut in 1960 described it as “a general organization to its core. It is not a trade union …”

The Histadrut has also exploited Palestinian workers and their union movement.

The exploitation of Palestinian workers from the occupied territories was institutionalized by an Israeli cabinet decision of October 1970. It provided that the military administration should supervise their employment. Their wages would be distributed by the payments department of the National Employment Service. Histadrut was a partner in this arrangement. National Insurance coverage was permitted in only three areas: work accidents, employer bankruptcy and a grant on the birth of a child in an Israeli hospital. Ten percent of the wages of Palestinian workers went to a special “Equalization Fund,” which was supposed to supply the population in the occupied territories with social and cultural services. In fact, this money was used to finance the occupation. The workers did not receive unemployment and disability benefits, old-age pensions, a monthly child allowance or vocational training.

In addition, each Palestinian worker had to pay one percent of his or her wages as dues to Histadrut. Workers saw nothing in return and now a fraction of this money has been returned, as a propaganda ploy, to the Palestinian General Federation of Trade Unions. When the Shin Bet intelligence service used work permits as a means to coerce Palestinian workers to collaborate, with those who refused being placed on a blacklist and their work permits cancelled, Histadrut again did nothing. [39]

Although many Australian unions already support BDS, AWU union boss Paul Howes seems to be under a false impression that the Histadrut is a union like any other.

“We don’t believe that it’s in the interests of Palestinian or Israeli workers to seek to divide them in the peace process,” Mr Howes said.

In a recent address to the Zionist Federation of Australia, Howes stated:

I think I am upholding that union tradition when I support the trust-building co-operative projects that the Israeli trade union movement – led by the Histadrut – and the Palestinian trade union movement – led by the PGFTU – are promoting.

If you truly believe that a-worker-is-a-worker-is-a-worker then the function of any trade union is to ensure fair pay for a fair day’s work and a safe and healthy workplace.

This applies to an Israeli worker , this applies to a Palestinian worker.

I can’t see how you can discriminate between an Israeli worker and a Palestinian worker. (Let alone a foreign worker from Asia or Africa working in Israel)

Paul appears oblivious to historical and current exploitation of and discrimination against Palestinian workers by the Histadrut as much as he is ignorant of the fact that the main Palestinian union, the Palestinian General Federation of Trade Unions’ (PGFTU), supports BDS.

In September 2009, the Histadrut claimed to have rectified some of its malfeasance.

In 1995 our two organisations signed an unprecedented agreement in which fifty percent of all dues from Palestinians employed by Israeli employers would be remitted to the PGFTU. Unfortunately, the
agreement was not fully implemented due to security conditions. However, under the auspices of the International Trade Union Confederation (ITUC), headed by Guy Ryder, we successfully finalised and
implemented the agreement in June 2008. As a result, US$3.6 million has been transferred to the PGFTU, both in arrears and in ongoing payments.

Yet according to Kav LaOved and The Alternative Information Centre (AIC), “The Economy of the Occupation”, the Histadrut has returned but a pittance of the monies extracted from exploited Palestinian workers:

“The calculated amount of debt without interest is NIS 3.082 billion, and with interest the amount reaches NIS 8.350 billion. It is important to note that this calculation is accurate to 2009, in 2008 prices, and does not include central elements for which information is not available. The calculation is therefore lacking.”

And further skullduggery:

“Addititionally, the Department deducted an additional 2.74% for a Provident Fund and health tax, which were included in the same package of deductions as organising fees for the Histadrut. The health tax covered health insurance of the workers in the OPT. It is unknown to us where the money deducted for the Provident Fund went and on what authority it was deducted.

“On the basis of a circular of the Department of Payments, we know that for the Provident Fund, NIS 0.54 were taken from every worker in the construction sector for each day of work at least until 1993, ie. 3.1% of their salary. From here we calculated that from 1970 to 1993, NIS 152 million (in 2008 prices) were taken from them for the Provident Fund. We do not know if this deduction continued after 1993, but we do know that the workers did not receive a Provident Fund.

“Under the false definition of Palestinians as ‘daily’ or ‘temporary’ workers, a majority of the benefits determined in the collective bargaining agreements of the Histadrut with the employers were stolen from Palestinian workers, including increments for security, family upkeep, grants for not missing work, a 13th salary in the agricultural sector and more.

The Histradut has expressed its support for removing “security checkpoints in the context of the renewed security situation” and called upon “the Israeli government to dismantle all illegal outposts.” It also supports the abandoned Roadmap and collapsed two state solution, yet does not expressedly support the end to Israeli colonialism in the Occupied Territories. Nor does the Histadrut protect Palestinian workers in the illegal Israeli settlements in the West Bank.

“The settlement factories are manned primarily by Palestinian labourers, who work in miserable conditions”, says Fathi Nasser, legal advisor with the Palestinian General Federation of Trade Unions (PGFTU). “The employers of these factories disregard labour laws and should the worker complain, he will be dismissed”. According to Nasser, as it is so difficult to obtain authorisation to take a case before an Israeli court, providing real legal protection to these workers is very complicated.

The Democracy and Workers Rights Centre (DWRC) tries to protect workers by educating workers on how to use their rights. “Officially, Palestinian workers in the West Bank’s industrial zones are entitled to the protection of Israeli labour laws but employers find many ways to avoid giving Palestinians their rights”, DWRC’s coordinator of the Legal Aid and Human Rights Project, Hwayda told us. The organisation was created in response to the failure of Israel’s major labour union, Histadrut, to represent Palestinian workers.

No excuses, Paul Howes, it’s time for you to move to the right side of history. Do not put a cold-blooded thirst for the political approval of the duplicitous Australian zionist lobby before the call of Palestinian workers. You’ve shown you can stand up for justice for Australian workers. Let’s see your real mettle – can you change your mind when faced with the facts? Support BDS and help Palestinian people achieve freedom and justice.

As Palestinian Rifat Odeh Kassis from Kairos says:

If you reject BDS as a valid way to call for change, and as a right in and of itself – a right that should be defended by any true democracy – then what other means do you propose for creating peace in our region? In a time when bloodshed has been the primary tactic, negotiations are an exercise in humiliation, and voices like yours continue to suggest that Palestinians have no rights to defend in the first place, BDS is an effective, nonviolent tool that strengthens – and unites – Israeli and Palestinian peacemakers alike.

6 Replies to “Paul Howes, the Histadrut and Boycotts, Divestments and Sanctions of Israel”

  1. Plitnick and Walt also recognise the two state non-solution is dead, but the US puts its hands over its ears, apparently prepared to try to extend the vapid soap opera for another season.

    Yesterday the Israeli Knesset voted 65-33 to approve the so-called referendum law, which requires a national referendum on any subsequent withdrawal from the Occupied Territories. According to Israeli journalist Dimi Reider, the new law:

    Conditions any Israeli withdrawal from any of its territory — into which Israel, alone in the world, includes the Golan Heights and East Jerusalem — on passing a nation-wide referendum. To overrule the law, the Knesset would need a privileged majority of 80 out of 120 parliamentarians.”

    In other words, you can kiss the two-state solution good-bye.

  2. More exploitation of Palestinian workers (10 Oct 2010)- no mention of the Histadrut coming to their aid in solidarity:

    For the second day in a row, Palestinian workers at an Israeli-owned factory on the Green Line remained on strike Wednesday, following what they say is management’s refusal to pay them the Israeli minimum wage.

    The striking workers say they are only paid NIS 90 per eight-hour work day. The “Sol-Or” factory at the Nitzanei Shalom industrial zone, located between the Nitzanei Oz and the West Bank city of Tulkarm, employs some 70 workers, virtually all of them Palestinians from within the Palestinian Authority.

    In 2008, the High Court of Justice issued a ruling that Israeli businesses operating in the West Bank must pay the Israeli minimum wage to Palestinian workers. The striking workers are requesting as well to get the pay returned to them retroactively, according to the time in which they law went into effect. Workers at the factory held a strike in 2007 to deal with the same complaints, but did not reach an agreement with management.

    Workers are demanding not only that they receive the minimum wage, but that they receive it retroactively for the time since the court ruling was issued in 2008.

    One of the protesting workers, Fahri, has worked at the factory for 10 years and still receives NIS 90 per day.

    “I have worked there for 10 years and still only receive 90 shekels a day,” he said. “I’ve always had good relations with the managers; all I want is to receive the minimum wage and I’ll be happy.”

  3. More evidence on the inauthenticity of the Histadrut as a workers’ union:

    Lately it has been published that high ranking employees of the Histadrut (Israeli Trade Union Federation) are simultaneously working as directors of for companies under the control of various wealthy businessmen. How is it possible that for such a long time the public knew nothing of this?

    This is where we learn that if a certain employee at Koakh LaOvdim (Power to the workers trade union federation), for example, was a member of any board of directors, Koakh LaOvdim would have to report to the registrar, and this information would automatically be available to the public. The Histadrut, on the other hand, could hide this kind of vital information for years. This is absurd; the Histadrut is the largest and oldest worker organization in Israel. It is unacceptable that the main worker organization in Israel would work without the least bit of transparency, while newer and smaller worker unions must to expose much data to the registrar and to the public.

  4. More evidence of horrific exploitation of migrant workers in Israel:

    ‘A report by the Knesset Research and Information Center states that many Thai farm laborers use an energizing form of meth-amphetamine known as Yaba, to make them able to work longer hours than their Israeli counterparts, under worse conditions. The Kav Laoved workers’ rights association estimates that a Thai laborer works 12 to 15 hours a day, ands sometimes even more. There were testimonies from laborers who only had four days off in a year, and all of the laborers who communicated with Kav Laoved reported that they worked six days a weeks, sometimes also on the Sabbath.’

Comments are closed.