From where I stand: “Empowerment begins with knowing your labour rights”

Date: Thursday, January 11, 2018

Ayk Sbaihat is a Palestinian human rights lawyer who used to provide legal aid to survivors of violence. In 2016, she took on a new journey, through the Fund for Gender Equality (FGE) of UN Women, helping female workers in Jenin, a northern city in the West Bank, to protect their labour rights.

Ayk Sbaihat. Photo: UN Women/Eunjin Jeong

I am a volunteer lawyer for the Reconciliation Unit established within the Kannanyat for Development and Studies Center (Kannanyat) that works to protect women’s labour rights and resolve conflict situations at workplaces. The working conditions here are not very good—many female workers in the private sector do not receive minimum wage and are often forced to work overtime, and sometimes during the weekend without extra pay. If sexual harassment happens at workplaces, women stay silent, as it is a cultural taboo to talk about such experiences. In some workplaces, there are no private bathrooms for women at all! Although health and safety hazards are frequent, many private sector companies do not have medical insurance for their employees. If you complain, you are at risk of losing your job because you are considered easily replaceable—and in the current economic situation, you don’t want to risk that. 

Many of these injustices happen because most women are not aware of their labour rights and whom to talk to when their rights are violated. According to the Palestinian Labour Law article 106, all companies should display the rights of female workers on the wall, but this rarely happens. As part of my work with the Unit, I often visit private companies to raise awareness about women’s labour rights. It’s not easy…at some businesses I visited, the owners didn’t even allow the female workers to talk to me.

The fact that the government department mandated to inspect private companies to ensure compliance with the labour law is under resourced, does not help. There are only two inspectors for 10,000 private companies in Jenin, and even those two cannot conduct field visits regularly, because they don’t have access to vehicles to travel. Our Unit partnered with the government to conduct inspection visits of companies in Jenin through 2016 and 2017. During those visits, we provided vehicles and accompanied the inspectors to remind the employers about their obligations, distributed a booklet on female workers’ labour rights and tried to inform female workers about their labour rights and how the Unit can help them when their rights are violated. Things are improving as the employers have started to trust us and listen to us. 

Recently, a woman approached the Unit asking for help. She had left her job, but had not received the end-of-service benefits she was entitled to. Our Unit set up a meeting with the employer, who was already familiar with us. He agreed to pay the woman all her entitlement. The case was easily resolved because both the employee and employer were aware of the labour rights of female workers. It was a win-win situation for both as they didn’t waste time and money in legal proceedings and a victory for the Unit. It’s good to see our hard work paying off.”

Ayk Sbaihat, 32, is a volunteer lawyer at the Reconciliation Unit within the Kannanyat for Development and Studies Center (Kannanyat) in Jenin, Palestine. The Reconciliation Unit is part of a 2-year project supported by UN Women Fund for Gender Equality (FGE) and implemented by a local organization, Mother’s School Society. The project aims to support the Decent Work Agenda for women workers in the private sector in Palestine. The Reconciliation Unit works extensively on raising awareness on labour rights and workplace conflict resolution, a key element for the fulfillment of the Sustainable Development Goal 8 that promotes sustained, inclusive and sustainable economic growth, full and productive employment and decent work for all, and SDG 5, which aims to achieve gender equality and empower all women and girls.

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