Arab Labor in Mandate Palestine

Arab Labor in Mandate Palestine
The Emergence of a Working Class

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Arab Labor in Mandate Palestine

The packaging of cigarettes at the Arab Cigarette and Tabacco Company.

circa 1940
G. Eric and Edith Matson Photograph Collection

The rise and development of the Arab working class was closely connected with all the demographic, economic, and social changes that Palestine experienced after it was colonized and ruled under the British Mandate.

Before the outbreak of World War I , it was not possible to talk about a working class in Palestine with a social identity or social characteristics that were distinctive. At the time hundreds of agricultural workers worked in the countryside, mostly doing seasonal work (such as harvesting olives and barley), and hundreds of craftsmen worked in the towns, in artisanal workshops (such as mills, soap factories, and pottery workshops) or at home (with raw materials provided by the merchants who employed them), along with dozens of people working in small industrial enterprises.     

In the early 1920s the first nucleus of a working class started to take shape within Palestinian urban society. It was made up of impoverished peasants who had been uprooted from their land and forced to migrate to the cities in search of paid work. To a lesser extent, the emerging working class included impoverished artisans who lost their livelihoods when craft and family-based production fell apart as Palestine became increasingly tied to the international capitalist economy and local crafts could no longer compete with modern industrial products from Europe that started to invade the Palestinian market. 

The number of Arab workers in employment in 1926 has been estimated at about 55,000, about 70 percent of whom were working in agriculture or construction; most of them were seasonal workers. The number of workers in small industrial facilities was no more than 3,000, many of them in the food, tobacco, soap, shoe, textile, and furniture industries; about 2,000 worked in the railways. Statistics published in 1928 show that 31.4 percent of workers in the artisanal and industrial establishments were owners and their families, 26.6 percent of these establishments paid only two or three workers each, and 13.3 percent of them paid four or five workers. Only 3 percent of these establishments employed more than 10 workers, suggesting very low levels of labor concentration.

Distribution of Workers in Early Mandate Palestine by Sector

Sector 1919 1923 1926
Arabs Jews Arabs Jews Arabs Jews
Agriculture 15,000 2,500 20,000 4,000 25,000 5,000
Railway Workers 2,000 100 2,000 500 2,000 400
Public Works 4,000 400 6,000 4,000 7,000 1,000
Small Workshops 1,000 500 2,500 1,000 3,000 3,000
Industrial Factories 200 300 500 2,000 1,000 2,000
Construction 2,800 200 14,000 3,500 17,000 13,600
TOTALS 25,000 4,000 45,000 15,000 55,000 25,000


This data suggest specific features of the Arab working class in Palestine, features that affected its organization and functioning. It was small compared to the total population, it had a low level of concentration, and it continued to have links with the countryside. Much of its activity was seasonal, which meant that the workforce operated intermittently because the labor market was dominated by sectors in which production was not permanent, such as agriculture and construction.

In the early 1930s, the migration of impoverished peasants from their villages to the towns noticeably accelerated in the wake of the large growth in Jewish immigration to Palestine, the increasing acquisition of land by Zionist organizations, and the continuing deterioration of traditional Arab agriculture. Since the fledgling Arab industrial sector was unable to absorb new workers, most of these impoverished peasants, denied any access to the Jewish economy due to the “Hebrew labor” policy, moved into the construction sector and into the projects set up by the British Mandate authorities in the early 1930s: expanding the road network, developing the railways, improving Haifa port, enlarging its facilities so that it could receive large ships and oil tankers, and granting concessions to foreign companies.

When the Great Palestinian Rebellion of 1936–39 broke out, Palestine experienced reverse migration, that is, from the towns to the countryside. Large numbers of workers returned to their villages or joined the insurgents in the hills. After the revolt was suppressed, the Arab economy emerged weak and fragmented; unemployment was widespread, especially as the Arab workers who went back to the towns looking for government work in the public works sector or in transport and the ports found that their jobs had gone and the Mandate authorities had replaced them Jewish workers.

In mid-1941 Palestine began to see an economic revival, and this led to an increase in demand for Arab labor. During World War II , Palestine was gradually transformed into an assembly point for British military forces and their supply base for the region, which drove the Mandate authorities to set up new factories, workshops, and British army bases; these enterprises employed about 28,000 Arab workers. In 1942 the Mandate government set up an official labor department, which opened employment bureaus. Private Arab agencies appeared, offering jobs to peasants migrating from the countryside. Meanwhile, the disruption to maritime communications during the war and the fall in the amount of foreign imports helped to encourage local production and the creation of many new Arab industries, such as textile, clothing, footwear, timber, food and beverage, tobacco, and metal industries.

The Mandate government resorted to employing thousands of unskilled Arab laborers in factories and camps linked to the war effort, generally set up outside the towns. Demand for Arab labor in the towns increased, especially after 30,000 workers, most of them Jews, signed up to join British military units; as a result, migration accelerated from the countryside to the towns. By 1943 unemployment had disappeared and there was a shortage of manpower. The Arab working class grew in size; it included about a third of the male population of working age. In 1944 the government's employment committee estimated that between 1939 and 1944, the workforce in the countryside fell by 70,000, only 10,000 of whom were Jews.

The temptation of jobs in remote places soon helped to make the workforce more mobile. In all parts of Palestine, peasants traveled long distances from their villages to look for paid work in government facilities and camps, which took on tens of thousands of workers. As the demand for Arab workers increased and the workforce became more mobile, traditional and personal models of employment declined and there was less reliance on the role of mediators such as village headmen and elders in contracting labor. Over time the traditional bonds that tied the Arab working class to village society started to break down, and an independent class identity subsequently began to emerge.

Although the Arab working class continued to expand in the years after World War II, small enterprises still dominated the Arab industrial sector. In 1947, 57.8 percent of these enterprises employed less than 10 workers each. Female workers were rare in this sector, accounting for no more than 5 percent of the workforce.

When the Nakba occurred in 1948, the Arab working class suffered the consequences of uprooting and dispersal, in the same way as other sectors of the Palestinian society.

Selected Bibliography: 

De Vries, David. “British Rule and Arab-Jewish Coalescence of Interest: The 1946 Civil Servants' Strike in Palestine.” International Journal of Middle East Studies 36, no.4 (November 2004): 613-638.

Lockman, Zachary. Comrades and Enemies: Arab and Jewish Workers in Palestine, 1906–1948. Berkeley: University of California Press, 1996.

Power, Jane. “Real Unions: Arab Organized Labor in British Palestine.” Arab Studies Quarterly 20, no.1 (Winter 1998): 13-28.

Taqqu, Rachelle. Arab Labor in Mandatory Palestine, 1920-1948. PhD dissertation. Columbia University, 1977.

Taqqu, Rachelle. “Peasants into Workmen: Internal Labor Migration and the Arab Village Community under the Mandate.” In Joel S. Migdal, ed., Palestinian Society and Politics, 261–286. Princeton, NJ: Princeton University Press, 1980.