RAMALLAH, West Bank – United Nations Relief and Works Agency (UNRWA) employees have gone on strike out of demand for higher wages; now 51,000 Palestinian children are unable to attend school while relief services are unavailable to 5,800 refugees, and 5,100 refugee families are cut off from financial support.
Clinics, education and jobs are unavailable to West Bank refugees since the strike first began a little over a month ago. The Palestinian territories have an approximate 25 percent unemployment rate and poverty rate, which is a quarter of the population.
The 42 health facilities closed down by the strike have put 132,000 refugees in a helpless position due to the lack of healthcare access. The strike has caused over 5,000 patients in refugee camps to be without medical care each day.
Workers employed at the UNRWA job creation program have taken on the extreme measure of hunger strikes to stop their short term contracts from termination. The Palestinian Authority cannot help much because it depends on aid to pay its workers. Limitations are placed on what can be done to help the refugees.
UNRWA union spokesman Shaker al-Rishq revealed that salaries were much higher for UNRWA workers in surrounding countries. The 740,000 refugees in the 19 West Bank refugee camps depend on the services provided by the staff of 4,400 Palestinian workers.
The strike is causing needs at the refugee camps to go unmet. Simple matters such as trash collection have become a major issue as local committees have been unable to keep up with the accumulation. Trash is piling up into mounds because there are not enough workers to collect it.
UNRWA feels as though its back is against the wall because it is struggling financially and cannot agree to a pay increase for its workers. Donor countries are experiencing domestic financial strain. Funding for relief efforts would be spread too thin if UNRWA workers received raises.
The Palestinian labor union did not accept the onetime $140 bonus that was also given to UNRWA workers in Jordan.
UNRWA workers earn 21.6 percent more than public sector employees in the West Bank. The UNRWA pay scale is based on the wages set in the host country. Since the Palestinian Authority cannot pay its workers much, wages at UNRWA tend to be lower.
UNRWA provided a six percent pay raise two years ago along with an individual performance based bonus of 2.3 percent given annually.
The U.N. strike has sparked a protest movement among Palestinian youth out of frustration about the conditions in the refugee camps. Problems are mounting one on top of the other in the Palestinian territories. The Palestinian economy has fallen weak. The Syrian civil war has aid agencies preoccupied with an escalating refugee crisis.
Palestinian youths have taken matters into their own hands in the wake of the U.N. strike. They took to the streets outside the Jalazoun refugee camp north of Ramallah and the connecting roads to other camps to express their outrage.
Palestinian youths are upset that UNRWA has stopped providing services that they and other refugees depend on. They have set tires on fire in the streets as an outlet for their anger.
The fear among many refugees is that UNRWA is pulling back on its aid efforts. Refugees expect the international community to give them support because they were displaced due to the war that resulted in the founding of Israel in 1948.
UNRWA is in search for a resolution to bring back workers. However, it cannot afford to give workers a raise. UNRWA claimed its wages are 20 percent to 80 percent higher than public sector counterparts.