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U.N. Strike Shows Convergence of Labor and Middle East Politics

Michelle Chen May 10, 2012

In the Kingdom of Jordan, conflict erupted in the Palestinian refugee community, but it’s not the kind of unrest you might expect in a society of survivors of war. The protesters were employees of the United Nations Relief and Works Agency for Palestinian refugees (UNRWA). They launched a strike to press for fairer wages and working conditions, which led to a sit-in at the agency’s Amman headquarters and affected a workforce of about 7,000 that provides health, education and social services to a Palestinian refugee population of about 1.5 million. The dispute was apparently just settled, following “mediation” by the Jordanian government, with a deal for a pay raise of about $70 (USD).

The local press reported earlier that the representatives of UNRWA workers’ councils had issued further demands, including "promotions for teachers, directors and supervisors and the filling of vacancies in all the agency's sectors, as well as the improvement of UNRWA employees' work conditions."

In a way, this was a classic labor conflict between a public agency and workers in a relatively poor country. But UNRWA is a unique international bureaucracy, with a global budget crisis intertwined with the politics of the conflict-ridden regions it serves.

UNRWA in Jordan faced a similar strike over pay rates in 2008. In Gaza last fall, the agency was besieged by calls for a general strike by the Local Staff Union of UNRWA in Gaza City. More than 240 schools in Gaza were affected by protests against the  suspected politically motivated suspension of union head Suhail Al-Hindi. Teachers were among the most vocal protesters:

Hamas sources said the UN agency had accused Hindi of meeting with Hamas political officials.

Buses took some 7,000 teachers employed at UNRWA-run schools to UN headquarters in Gaza city where they held a sit-in, calling for an end to "UNRWA political punishment of employees."

"Death rather than humiliation" read a banner held by striking teachers. "Deception, lying and hypocrisy have become the core values of UNRWA," read another.

The conflict has reportedly aggravated opposition from Hamas against liberal educational methods promoted by UNRWA. The agency countered that the union was a political pawn for “those who seek to defund and destroy UNRWA.” Caught in the cross-fire, the Palestinian Center for Human Rights called on the union and managment to negotiate and “give priority to the interests of refugees, especially children, who receive education, health and social services.”

Although the recent labor action in Jordan did not take on such an overtly political tone, as with any issue involving the Palestine, the workplace tensions were colored by the Israeli-Palestinian conflict. UNRWA has long found itself under both financial and political pressure from its international donors.

McGill University political science professor Rex Brynen, head of the Palestinian Refugee ResearchNet, told In These Times that UNRWA is especially vulnerable to budget problems because it is supported by politically charged international funding streams:

Some of the recent strikes in Gaza… have arisen as a consequence of tensions between local workers asserting a right to freely engage in local politics, while UNRWA asserts a vision of neutrality that would prevent them from doing so.

In part, UNRWA's position arises from being a UN agency—but, in contrast to most UN agencies, the overwhelming majority of its employees are local (Palestinian) nationals. On top of this, certain types of political activity by UNRWA staff, such as any apparent link to Hamas or other Palestinian paramilitary groups, tend to generate a substantial backlash from Israel, its supporters in the US Congress, and the US itself.

Brynen added that “Since Washington is the agency's largest single funder, UNRWA needs to carefully balance working in politically sensitive areas with the need to maintain the flow of donor resources so as to be able to sustain refugee services.”

Incidentally, around the same time of the clashes in Gaza, Washington used its purse strings to punish UNESCO, another agency providing social and educational programs, for voting to accept Palestine as a member. Once again, geopolitics turned humanitarian workers and refugees into hostages of a budget war that makes ordinary life for the whole community absurdly hard, from seeing a doctor to earning a paycheck.

The Jordan strike also reflects the influence of another social force in the region that has further scrambled the Middle East’s political juggernaut: the public's rising demand for government accountability and economic dignity. Jordan’s government has made efforts to stave off Arab Spring-inspired uprisings by raising public sector wages, in turn stoking pressure among UNRWA staff for better pay as well. But currently, Brynen warned, “Trying to match Jordan's politically-motivated public sector pay increases would necessarily come at the expense of other programs.”

Yet at the end of the day, all the politics of humanitarian work converge the demands of workers, refugees, and citizens for real power over their political and economic futures. The uprisings across the Middle East and North Africa show that even in countries battered by war and authoritarianism, the desire for equity and social rights is universal and unrelenting. And until international agencies and the governments heed those demands, the intertwined injustices of war and economic injustice continue to tighten around a region about to explode.

This article was originally published by In These Times.


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