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UNRWA employees in Gaza stage one-day strike over reduction of services

Oct. 5, 2016 4:29 P.M. (Updated: Oct. 5, 2016 6:35 P.M.)
GAZA CITY (Ma'an) -- The union of employees of the United Nations Relief and Works Agency for Palestine Refugees in the Near East (UNRWA), the UN agency responsible for providing services to some five million Palestinian refugees, announced a one-day strike on Wednesday in the besieged Gaza Strip, with only schools and health centers exempted, to protest a reduction of UNRWA services to refugees and employees.

The head of a joint committee representing the union, Suheil al-Hindi, urged UNRWA to halt service reductions and instead create job opportunities for Palestinians during a news conference held in front of the UNRWA offices in Gaza City, adding that UNRWA should “give employees full rights and work out a solution for temporarily contracted employees.”

"UNRWA should carry out its duties professionally in order to obtain the funds to support refugees, instead of making them bear the consequences of the current crisis and depriving them of the aid they are entitled to," al-Hindi said during the news conference.

"Those who set the fire will be burnt by it," al-Hindi added, referencing the widespread protests and civil disobedience campaigns targeting UNRWA as the agency has come under criticism by Palestinian groups who have claimed the agency has cut services to Palestinian refugees while threatening the jobs of Palestinians employed by the agency.

An official from the left-wing Democratic Front for the Liberation of Palestine (DFLP) Mahmoud Khalaf said in a speech at the news conference that Palestinian factions were supporting UNRWA employees and their protests.

“There have been ongoing discussions with the UN local administration in Gaza Strip regarding the issues, but they didn’t lead to any results,” al-Hindi told Ma’an last week leading up to the strike.

Al-Hindi also claimed that the United Nations had turned down all of the union’s demands regarding wages, early retirement, and employee classification during its General Assembly in New York City one week earlier.

The one-day strike was initially expected to take place in the West Bank and Gaza Strip. However, the strike was only held in Gaza.

UNRWA’s Arabic language spokesperson Sami Mshasha responded to the protests, telling Ma’an that the organization would continue to offer services to Palestinian refugees despite the strike.

Mshasha added that an agreement was reached in order to create a joint committee of UNRWA administration officials and union members to address the crisis. The committee included representatives of employee unions in the West Bank and Gaza Strip, and a representative of UNRWA’s refugee camps in Jordan, Syria, Lebanon, the West Bank, and Gaza Strip.

UNRWA, Mshasha said, respected the right of the unions to protest, but emphasized that the strikes would have negative impacts on the refugees. He confirmed that UNRWA would continue providing services to Palestinian refugees despite the strike, but expressed his hope that employees wanting to access their workplaces would not be prevented from doing so by protesters.

Mshasha also said that UNRWA had the right to implement a principle of “no work, no payment,” as the agency had done in previous strikes.

UNRWA spokesman Chris Gunness reiterated to Ma’an that services to the 1.3 million Palestinian refugees in Gaza served by UNRWA would not be affected by the strike, adding that while staff access to UNRWA offices has been affected by the protests, all offices have continued to remain in full operation in the besieged enclave.

Gunness said that UNRWA “respects each staff member’s individual choice to participate or not. It appreciates all of its staff members and their right to work or right to strike,” and that employees who did not wish to participate in the strike arranged with their supervisors to work off-site for the day.

The union had staged a temporary strike last month in the four countries receiving UNRWA services -- the occupied West Bank and Gaza, Lebanon, Syria, and Jordan -- to protest low salaries and staff shortages.

Al-Hindi at the time accused the UNRWA administration of not filling in hundreds of vacant positions, claiming the UN agency "deliberately puts off hiring employees in order to win some time and save money at the expense of refugees."

Al-Hindi said that UNRWA-affiliated schools were in a state of “chaos,” with some 449 teaching positions left unfilled, while hundreds of teachers were off duty due to health issues, maternity leave or the Muslim pilgrimage of Hajj, which concluded last month, adding that some schools hadn’t received textbooks three weeks into the school year.

Meanwhile, al-Hindi said, UNRWA was not seeking to palliate the lack of staff in schools and health centers, despite there being hundreds of unemployed graduates qualified to hold positions in these fields.

Al-Hindi called the current relationship between UNRWA administration and the union "the worst ever," and said that the workers’ union would carry out more protests if UNRWA did not meet their demands.

UNRWA advisor on media affairs Adnan Abu Hasna said at the time that the union was "demanding a salary increase for all employees," adding that a survey conducted by UNRWA’s administration in coordination with the union of employees found out that a number of employees received salaries lower than the average in the hosting country.

UNRWA would continue dialogue with the union under the “agreed joint committee” in order to “find solutions regarding the salary survey and its results,” Gunness told Ma'an on Wednesday.

“The priority remains to resolve the current challenges and ensure that UNRWA services to Palestine refugees in Gaza are not adversely impacted by these negotiations," Gunness added.

While UNRWA has denied allegations in the past that the changes to refugee services were an attempt to develop more cost-effective procedures in order to alleviate a financial crisis in the agency, Palestinians have accused the agency of sacrificing the well-being of Palestinian refugees in order to make up for their financial strains.

UN Secretary General Ban Ki-moon called on UN member states in May to assist the organization in compensating for a $81 million deficit, adding that the agency was, again, in “dire need of resources.” The plea came one year after the organization faced the largest financial setback in its history, with a recorded deficit of $100 million.
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