By Andrew DISMORE, London Assembly member, Camden and Barnet.
MY RECENT visit to Israel and the West Bank with Trade Union Friends of Israel included my first trip to Sderot.
If anything brings home the need for a peace agreement with security, it is the remains of many of the rockets fired indiscriminately from the nearby Gaza Strip. It is in this context that the boycott campaign in the UK, especially in the trades union movement, is so counterproductive, based as it is on a false mythology that can only create division.
Would-be boycotters claim Histadrut is “illegitimate” and “not a proper trade union”. Yet hearing the achievements of Histadrut for its members makes such claims nonsense. There have been improvements in pay and conditions unheard of for years in the UK, much stronger labour-law protection for unions and workers than in the UK, more than 30 percent of the workforce is in trade unions (which compares favourably to the UK), and Histadrut has political muscle in its dealings with government.
UK unions should be envious of such a record. And what union in the UK would give part of its subs income to another union, as Histadrut does in passing more than 50 percent of the membership fees it receives from Palestinian workers in Israel to the Palestine General Federation of Trades Unions (PGFTU)?
Palestinian employees in a West Bank settlement factory freely told us their pay was three times higher than if they had been employed by a Palestinian business, as they benefited from Israeli pay rates and labour rights. If they lost their jobs because of the boycott, they would have to depend on finding work in an area of 35 percent unemployment. They were asked continually by their neighbours if there were jobs available at the factory.
The factory employed Jews sometimes under Palestinian supervisors, and vice versa; everyone got on in harmony with making a living for themselves and their families. These Palestinians were in no doubt about their opposition to a boycott. We should do more to try to get this real voice of Palestinians and their families heard in UK unions.
These people would be devastated by a boycott. The PGFTU had no answer when I mentioned this.
It takes the Palestinian Authority political line on the boycott, even though it is against the interests of up to 50,000 Palestinian workers in the settlements. It is hypocritical of the PA to legislate, as it did in 2010, to forbid Palestinians to take jobs in the settlements and then not enforce it; and to say it supports a boycott when Palestinian workers would be the first to suffer if one took hold. When Unilever gave in to pressure and moved production from the West Bank fully into Israel, 100 Palestinians lost their jobs.
After visiting Teva, an Israel pharmaceutical giant, it seems to me the argument needs to be much more focused. Teva produces and licences Copaxone, an important drug in the treatment of multiple sclerosis. An effective boycott would mean this drug would be unavailable to UK sufferers, as it is made only by Teva. This includes production at a UK base in Runcorn. The 700 jobs there would also be at stake.
Surely the MS Society might have something to say about this, as might these workers? And if these workers were unionised as they are in Israel, they could argue the case internally in their union, too.
We ended the visit with a tour of Yad Vashem, a moving experience, especially for those in the delegation who had not previously been there. Seeing the evidence of how the Holocaust’s evil roots grew from the Nazi boycott of Jewish businesses suggested maybe it is time to develop a trade-union Auschwitz education programme, to reinforce the message of where ostracism by boycott can ultimately lead.
To conclude positively, discussions with the Palestinians showed a real commitment on their part to a two-state solution, considerable progress since I was last in Israel. Let’s hope the current talks, rightly conducted under media blackout, lead to a fair outcome with security for Israel and a homeland state for the Palestinians.