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Hamdallah meets UNRWA union
Published Wednesday 15/01/2014 (updated) 18/01/2014 09:34
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RAMALLAH (Ma'an) -- Interim Prime Minister Rami Hamdallah on Wednesday met representatives from UNRWA's employees union and refugee camp popular committees to discuss a letter he received from the refugee agency's general commissioner.

The letter from Filippo Grandi addressed issues between UNRWA and its employees including re-hiring 53 employees whose contracts ended in December 2013 as part of a job-creation program.

The letter also said that the UN was prepared to equalize salaries in the Gaza Strip and West Bank.

Hamdallah called on the union to suspend its strike in order to continue serving the needs of the camps, and provide an opportunity for talks sponsored by the government.

Representatives of the union said they would study the suggestions and announce their position Thursday after discussing the letter with its members.

Minister of Labor Ahmad al-Majdalani, who was present at the meeting, said the ministry would try to close the gap between UNRWA and the employees in order to resume providing services to refugee camps.

Earlier Wednesday, a group of school children blocked a main road near a refugee camp in the northern West Bank on Wednesday, in protest against UNRWA, a Ma'an reporter said.

The demonstration, held in Ein Beit al-Mai refugee camp in Nablus, was the latest of the ongoing protests against UNRWA, which has closed schools and offered fewer services throughout the past six weeks due to a general strike carried out by its Palestinian employees.

After blocking the road, hundreds of children marched to the center of Nablus and staged a sit-in near the city's courthouse.

Protesters urged the Palestinian Authority to exert pressure on UNRWA to comply with the demands of its employees in order to end the strike.

The demonstration was also organized in solidarity with former UNRWA employees currently on hunger strike to protest layoffs that occurred in late December, a union spokesperson told Ma'an.

"Crowded rallies marched from all of the Nablus refugee camps to the center of Nablus to join the hunger striking employees," Farid Masimi said.

He added that the unions were not informed of a meeting that took place last Wednesday between an UNRWA official and Hamdallah.

Hamdallah met with UNRWA Commissioner General Filippo Grandi on Jan. 8 to discuss the situation.

The "crisis" in UNRWA schools threatens the future of 300,000 students, Hamdallah said at the time.

Union demands, UNRWA response

Various demands have been cited by Palestinian UNRWA employees in the past 45 days of the strike, including wage increase, a change in UNRWA's policy regarding staff members who have been detained by Israel, and the reversal of December's layoffs.

Strikes have been ongoing since the time of layoffs, leading to a major reduction of services in the West Bank's 19 refugee camps.

Additionally, hunger strikes -- carried out by dozens of former employees from Jerusalem, Hebron, Bethlehem, and Nablus -- are in direct protest of the layoffs.

A spokesman for the UNRWA local employees' union, Shaker al-Rashq, told Ma'an Friday that the employees were laid off due to an UNRWA policy not to hire Palestinians who have been detained by Israel.

Though UNRWA officials have kept quiet about the current talks with Hamdallah, UNRWA spokesman Chris Gunness told Ma'an last Wednesday that the agency "deplores statements by the unions that we have abused the rights of staff."

In cases where staff are detained, Gunness said, "the Agency continues to uphold their rights and only when someone has been found after a thorough review to have violated UN rules and regulations is disciplinary or other action taken."

He told Ma'an on Jan. 7 that "UNRWA's recent salary survey has shown that UNRWA workers are paid more than twenty percent on average higher than the equivalent jobs in the Palestinian Authority. In some cases our workers are paid eighty per cent higher."

Gunness told Ma'an that the former employees on hunger strike were temporary employees whose contracts were not renewed. The funding that provided those employees with salaries had been cut from $40 million to $25 million, he said.

UNRWA advertised 27 job openings after the layoffs took place, but "those on hunger strike did not apply," Gunness said.

The employees were aware that their positions were "never permanent. ... It seems a bit strange to go on hunger strike for that reason."

UNRWA is the UN agency originally set up in 1949 to ensure relief and development for the Palestinian refugees expelled from what became the State of Israel in 1948.

Today, the agency provides health care, education, social services, and other forms of aid to nearly 5 million Palestinian refugees.
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