Thousands of Palestinians took to the streets of the city of Ramallah on 15 October 2018 to protest the looming implementation of the new social security law in November. Assembling in Al-Manara Square, Ramallah’s main square, the demonstrators demanded the complete withdrawal of the law or the delay of its implementation until it has been fundamentally modified. Moreover, demonstrators called for the ousting of the Minister of Labor and head of the Social Security Association Ma'moun Abu Shahla, and the Secretary-General of the Palestinian General Federation of Trade Unions (PGFTU) Shaher Saed. Protestors also expressed that they would neither accept nor comply with the terms of the law.
The social security law in question was passed by the Palestinian Authority (PA) as early as 2 March 2016, was subsequently revised in response to strikes by the end of 2016, and has been met with strong opposition due to technical and procedural issues ever since. Although the initial revisions raised hope with regards to the impact of popular protest on policy making, many reject the approved version of the law. Primarily, critics reject the terms of the law that pertain to benefit cuts, the retirement age, inheritance law, as well as family tax law. Moreover, opponents of the law fault the perceived illegitimacy of the legislative process. In spite of substantial criticism on the part of the Palestinian public, among them social and labor experts, the Palestinian government has now given a final approval of the law, which is expected to be implemented at the beginning of next month.
The law faces challenges on many fronts, chief among them are some of its basic stipulations. According to Palestinian news outlets such as Felesteen, the legislation provides for the deduction of 7.2 percent of private-sector employees’ monthly salaries, which is to be invested in a social security fund. Employers will be required to pay the equivalent of 9 percent of their employees’ salaries into the fund. However, workers apprehend that employers will instead deduct this amount from their salaries. The law also specifies that both spouses pay into the social security fund, whilst receiving only the husband’s income. Among the population, substantial doubts also persist in view of how their contributions will be employed. Moreover, the law stipulates that widows cannot inherit their deceased husband’s pensions, while orphans cannot inherit their parents’ pensions upon finishing university.
Furthermore, critics have argued that the law was passed outside of an adequate legislative process and amidst a volatile political environment. President Mahmoud Abbas signed the law into force by presidential decree, thereby circumventing the Palestinian Legislative Council (PLC) – Palestine’s parliament. Abbas has unilaterally legislated over a hundred laws between 2007 and 2016, contrary to the ‘Amended Basic Laws’, which is the equivalent of a constitution in Palestine, enacted by the PLC. The PLC has remained incapacitated since 2007 due to the political split between Hamas, which controls the Gaza Strip, and Fatah, which governs the West Bank as leading party in the PA.
Moreover, labor unions have issued a statement not merely criticizing the content of the social security law, but also arguing that an implementation of labor law as a whole is necessary. Legislation must guarantee the inclusion of all workers that have hitherto been denied their rights. Labor unions have also criticized the lack of mechanisms for the implementation of the labor and the social security law and the failure by the PA to establish a labor court. In this regard, Shaher Saed is widely regarded as complicit in the new regulations as he is one of the very few labor leaders not to openly criticize the law.
The law is seen to have passed through a largely undemocratic process, leaving little space for the participation of labor unions and other civil society actors. Moreover, the population is wary of the fact that the law may entrench social inequality as it is held to cut social benefits in favor of the established economic and political elite. The resentment on large parts of the Palestinian population must therefore be seen in the context of an increasing disenchantment with the PA, in particular with regards to allegations of rampant corruption. According to the latest FES-JMCC survey, the great majority (81.7 percent) of respondents in the West Bank and Gaza believe that widespread corruption prevails in the PA institutions and services. This sentiment is only strengthened with passing of every law that is perceived to be unjust.
This set of challenges and critiques makes the implementation of such a law unpopular. Nonetheless, the government does not seem to be inclined to delay its implementation. This position could lead to further demonstrations, that could galvanize the Palestinian workers around their common interests.