Interview with Sindyanna, RMT's New Merchandise Supplier

Sindyanna logoAlongside baseball caps, pens and ties, you will soon be able to order RMT-labelled olive oil, baskets and soap. And by doing so, you will be supporting women workers and trade unionists in a part of the world that needs all the solidarity we can give.

Following a resolution from our Women's Conference (originally from Stratford no.1 branch), RMT has ordered this merchandise from Sindyanna, a women workers' cooperative in Galilee, Israel, which is linked to the Workers' Advice Centre (WAC), a trade union project that unites Jewish and Arab workers and campaigns against the oppression of the Palestinian people.

You can read more about Sindyanna on its website here, and about WAC on its website here. I asked Hadas Lahav of Sindyanna some questions about its work.

What is the situation of the women who work making Sindyanna’s products? If they did not work for Sindyanna, what sort of job – if any – would they do?

  • All workers of Sindyanna of Galilee enjoy full labour rights.
  • All our workers are organised in WAC (Workers Advice Centrre – Ma’an in Arabic) an association with trade union orientation.
  • Sindyanna’s current production team comprises five women, the management and administrative team six women, and Sindyanna’s visitor centre in Kufr Manda another three women. They are all members of WAC. They participate in WAC’s social activities and WAC annual meetings.
  • Production workers’ salaries are equivalent to the legal minimum wage in Israel which is today 22 I.S. (Israeli shekel) per hour.
  • Our warehouse operates 5 days a week from 7:30 until 16:00 each day. The workers are entitled to two breaks during the work day; one break in the morning, and one in the afternoon at lunch time.
  • Our warehouse has a safety control inspection conducted regularly by a professional supervisor. No dangerous/hazardous materials are presented at the workplace.
  • Our company policy with regard to equal treatment and opportunities for women is concentrated on the rights of Arab women to a job. We have a policy of affirmative action in employing Arab women.
  • We have a history of improving the situation of the most disadvantaged labour groups - Arab unskilled women - by offering them the same social benefits as guaranteed by the Israeli law to all workers. In addition, we run several projects that aim to promote Arab women’s position in the society as well as providing them jobs with all labour rights.

The working conditions in Sindyanna’s warehouse are exceptional among working Arab women. In Kufr Cana, where our warehouse is located, women work for 11 I.S. per hour (half of the legal minimum wage) with no social rights at all. Most of the jobs offered for unskilled women are in local shops and supermarkets, small family workshops, bakeries etc. In nearby Nazareth, university graduate women are forced to work for 2000 I.S. per month (less than half of the minimum wage) in shops and offices (advocates, physicians, etc.) due to lack of job opportunities. Read more on Arab women’s employment on the WAC website:

Only 18.6% of Arab women over age 15 are in the labour force, compared to 56% of Jewish women (Israel's Central Bureau of Statistics, Tables 1.2 and 8.1, figures for 2006)… The average wage of Arab women is 47% lower than that of Jewish women. More than half earn the minimum wage or less, compared with a third of Jewish women (Source: "Condition of Employment…," cited above.) … Arab women are concentrated in low-salary fields. They are hired after Jews and paid less for the same work. This situation leads many Arab women to give up the job search. About 12% drop out of the quest, compared to 1% among their Jewish counterparts (Ibid)
As for those Arab women who do work in agriculture, what is the nature of their employment? In the Arab village there are many local subcontractors, who transport the women to work and collect their wages, from which they skim about 40%. There is rarely a salary slip, not to mention benefits. The workers wind up with 80 to 100 shekels for an eight-hour day — that's about $20 to $25 — instead of the legal minimum of 176 shekels.

What trade union projects does money from the sale of your products help to finance?

Sindyanna of Galilee shows its commitment to Fair Trade by using the Fair Trade Premium entirely for social projects:

  1. Capacity-building of women in new skills
  2. Organising meetings between Arab and Jewish women and between Sindyanna's women and women from cooperatives in the Palestinian territories.
  3. Supporting WAC's projects to promote employment of Arab women.

Here is a list of projects sponsored by Sindyanna of Galilee:

  1. Women's training project. Basket-weaving project, visitor center in Kufr Manda.
    The basket-weaving project and Visitors Centre in Kufr Manda, a village of Galilee, trains Arab women in a profession, in running the workshop, and in presenting their achievements to potential buyers. The Centre enables its guests to meet the weavers face to face, so that they get to know “the person behind the basket,” thus promoting dialogue between Arabs and Jews.
  2. Networking campaign to bring Arab women back to work. Donation to documentary film on unemployment (by video48 group) and to Bread & Roses exhibitions since 2009.
  3. Agricultural projects: Oasis - planting of olive trees in Roha. Public Olive Picking days – organising public events and voluntary working days in the field, meetings between WAC's agriculture workers, WAC's youth movement and Israeli peace activists.

What do you feel is positive about supplying products to a trade union organisation outside Israel/Palestine?

It is all about solidarity. We try to create solidarity between people: producers in the Middle East and customers in the North; Arab women and Israeli women; Arab working women and Israeli peace activists.

We believe that a trade union can benefit from promoting solidarity between people whenever and wherever it emerges. It is the best way to educate working people to develop and appreciate their movement.

Do you hope that our order will set an example for others to follow?

We hope that RMT’s first order will set an example for other trade unions in UK and elsewhere. We hope that these products will find their way to the hearts and minds of your members and help us demonstrate that working people of all nations share joint interests.

Most of Sindyanna’s trade is done through fair trade networks. We also supply products to Solidarity-with-Palestine organisations (like Palestine Olive in Sendai, Japan, churches and trade unions. Since 3 years ago, we have been selling soap and olive oil to USO in Spain (through SOTERMUN). In UK we work with LUSH, Zaytoun Ltd. and with the fair trade shop Palcrafts / Hadeel from Edinburgh.

Why is it important to Sindyanna (and the Workers’ Advice Centre) to unite Jewish and Arab workers?

Israel is a conflict-ridden society. Arab Palestinians are discriminated against in all walks of life. We at Sindyanna strive to build a society based on justice and equal opportunities for all its citizens. We see WAC’s struggle to unite in struggle Jewish and Arab workers as an example to what a trade union should be.

What role can working-class women play in the struggle to end oppression?

As citizens who are oppressed they have an ultimate motivation to end oppression and create better conditions for a free and just society. As working women who contribute to the economy of their family, they have more influence on their society.