By: Salwa Alenat, Kav LaOved, januar 2011
Early in 2010, the Palestinian Authority (PA) declared its intention to bar Palestinians from working in settlements. The declaration, which was made public in the Palestinian and international media, caused great confusion among workers. In meetings with Kav LaOved, we realized that the workers sought to understand what would be the legal consequences of having to quit their jobs due to PA instructions.
According to a preliminary review by Kav LaOved, it seems the chances of workers receiving compensation after quitting under such circumstances would be very slim, as they were not fired and did not leave as a result of events linked to their employers.
Nevertheless, in the past several months, workers are reporting an increase in unilateral actions taken by employers. In several factories at the Barkan, Nitzaney Oz and Mishor Adumim industrial zones, Palestinian workers were replaced with Israeli or migrant workers. At the same time, the PA is considering an option of delaying the start of the boycott by a year, and it is still unclear to workers what will happen with them in the following year.
With the pending boycott, workers were confronted with the dilemma that pits a political ideology of opposing settlements with the need to provide for their families in the West Bank. During one of our meetings with a Spanish journalist in the Aqbat Jaber refugee camp near Jericho, workers, many of whom are employed in the Mishor Adumim Industrial Zone, were fearful of revealing their political position. One worker, in his 30s and a father of five, said he feared that revealing his political stance would result in the loss of his work permit and his only source of livelihood. The worker said he was already threatened by his Israeli employer who told him that if he did not retract a complaint he filed in the labor court, he would arrange a “refusal on security grounds” to his request to extend his work permit.
In the past year, Kav LaOved along with Palestinian unions in the Jericho and Salfit areas held several meetings with workers in order to follow up on the PA’s boycott declaration. Kav LaOved, whose mandate it is to protect labor rights, did not state a stance on the boycott issue. The Palestinian unions, however, do support the boycott, and see it as a means of fighting Israel’s occupation.
The workers themselves do not hold one opinion regarding the boycott. Some support it, and state they are willing to work in the PA for a lower wage. Others say they do not support the boycott as it could lead to a loss of their job, and added that there was no alternative employment in the PA. All workers were angry that PA representatives did not take them into consideration when they decided to declare the boycott unilaterally.
Some 18,000 Palestinians with valid work permits work in the settlements, in construction, agriculture and in the Mishor Adumim, Barkan, Nitzaney Oz, Imanuel, Karney Shomron and Atarot industrial zones. Some 10,000 more are employed in agriculture in the Jordan Valley without valid permits. In addition, children as young as 12 work seasonally in the agricultural fields of the Jordan Valley, mainly when dates, peppers and tomatoes are harvested.
The workforce includes wide margins of Palestinian society who are not associated with Palestinian labor unions, though they do receive legal advice from union branches in Jericho, Salfit and Qalqilya. Kav LaOved supports and assists the unionization of these workers through the establishment of informal committees. Other union branches do not provide any counsel for workers in settlements, under the pretense that assisting them in effects legitimizes illegal West Bank settlements. The PA, along with human rights groups, supports this stance which opposes assisting Palestinian workers employed in settlements.
The political reality has always affected the employment of Palestinian workers. Israel’s occupation which exploits available lands to expand settlement activity creates an economic reality of which Palestinian labor is an inseparable part. The occupation legitimizes the exploitation of thousands of Palestinian workers who are at the mercy of Israel’s security authorities who issue work permits based on a “security background check” every 3 or 6 months. In addition, the lack of interest shown by Israeli authorities in anything that occurs on the “other side” of the Green Line and a clear lack of enforcement of Israeli labor laws on Palestinian workers in settlements all create comfortable breeding grounds for exploitation of workers by their Israeli employers.
The reality for Palestinian workers in the territories shifts between total neglect by the PA, Israel and many Palestinian human rights groups, and international activism that is manifested by media bodies, solidarity movements and international rights groups. In the past year dozens of activists, journalists and representatives of various organizations have met with workers and discussed employment conditions and the ramifications of the boycott. The International Labor Organization proposed lodging complaints over violation of labor laws in the occupied territories. In the organization’s annual reports several chapters were dedicated to the documentation of employment conditions of Palestinians in Israel and in settlements.
The general feeling among workers is that no one will protect their rights. They are treading a fine line between the need to support themselves and their families in order to survive, and between loyalties to their national cause.
Changes in Employment Conditions of Palestinians in Settlements
The past 5 years have seen minor improvements in the employment conditions of Palestinians in the territories. In 2007, following 12 years of court work, Israel’s High Court of Justice ruled that Palestinian workers in the settlements are under the jurisdiction of Israel’s labor laws. On the one hand this ruling is in opposition of international law that states that occupiers may not subject occupied populations to their laws. On the other hand, the ruling is based on the principle of equality between Palestinian and Israeli workers employed in settlements.
This principle of equality guided meetings with workers, focusing on raising awareness of their own rights, and later led to the emergence of organized labor. This awareness of equal rights has led workers to strive for change by demanding better conditions from employers while submitting individual or collective complaints. It should be noted that these demands carry a price and many workers were fired during their struggle to improve their work conditions.
Significant improvements in wages have been achieved in the Barkan (near Salfit) and Mishor Adumim (near Jericho) industrial zones, with many factories paying legal minimum wage to their employees. In others wages have gone up, but have not reached the required minimum. Meanwhile, a new problem has arisen in the form of fabricated salary slips that do not match the actual number of working hours.
At the same time, social benefits such as vacation days, sick days and holidays, are still not adhered to. Some employers matched their workers’ salaries and benefits to those required by law only after lawsuits were filed in the labor court system with Kav LaOved assistance.
By September 2010, 92 lawsuits by Palestinian workers were submitted, 24 of which were filed by agricultural workers. This figure is greater than previous years, when agricultural workers rarely filed lawsuits.
In June 2010 the Jerusalem labor court ruled that both contractor and employer are responsible for any violations of labor laws that affect their employees (see: Kav LaOved Report). This ruling encouraged other workers to fight for their labor rights by using the court system.
In the Jordan Valley, it seems that the situation in the past year remained stagnant, and salaries are currently 60-80 shekels per day, with no social benefits and no proper handling of work accidents. In addition, employing minors aged 12 is common.
Work safety was not improved in the Jordan Valley, despite numerous complaints lodged by Kav LaOved, especially regarding the dangerous process of diluting date palms, which entails lifting workers and leaving them in the tree canopies for hours. At the beginning of the year, Kav LaOved produced a short film documenting safety concerns in the Jordan Valley date palm groves. The film, Bitter Dates, has been presented at various conferences and meetings in Israel and abroad, and has captured the attention of various Fair Trade organizations.
This year, the main difference has been the establishment of several worker unions that group Palestinians who work in settlements. The process started with knowledge conveyed to workers during workshops regarding their rights and the Israeli labor law. This was followed up by a process of team building around the issue of demanding basic rights from employers. In most cases, employers refuse to improve work conditions, and Kav LaOved is forced to seek legal action through class action lawsuits in the court system or through the Ministry of Industry, Trade and Labor (MOITAL), or by reaching out to the media.
In an unusual precedent, on October 19, the Palestinian workers of the Sol-Or plant near Tul Karem, used their legal prerogative and declared a labor dispute. 80 of 100 workers refused to work, demanding minimum wages. Their salary was 10 shekels per hour, roughly half of the minimum required by law. The factory has ignored various calls by Kav LaOved to pay minimum wages and to improve safety conditions, claiming they abide by Jordanian, not Israel labor laws. Workers refused to accept this claim, and are currently fighting their employer in court. To date, 19 striking workers have been fired and the conflict has yet to be resolved.
Kav LaOved accompanied the workers for 3 years, as they underwent various training courses detailing the rights they are entitled to. They removed barriers and overcame prejudices regarding the balance of powers between themselves and their employers. For years they thought they had no rights, and that their employer was omnipotent, largely due to the fact that enforcement agents from MOITAL never bothered to visit the factory.
Workers from the “Mamtakey Oneg” candy factory at the Mishor Adumim Industrial Zone were also organized. Here, even a July visit by a MOITAL agent didn’t lead to improved labor conditions. Several workers who complained of illegally low wages or withheld pay were fired.
Workers at the Mamtakey Oneg factory have organized informally. They were divided and a general feeling of mistrust was evident among worker ranks. Such problems are to be expected in a work environment where there is competition among workers to earn tenure, even at the expense of a decent salary or the workers’ wellbeing and honor.
Workers at the “Off HaBira” slaughterhouse in Mishor Adumim were also exposed to harsh violations of their labor rights. Some 100 employees work day and night shifts, often 15 hours long. Workers are paid 10 shekels an hour, with no social benefits such as sick days, holidays, vacation days or overtime. They were also never provided with salary slips. The factory’s management claimed that an East Jerusalem placement agency was responsible for paying workers. The placement agency claimed it was paying according to the law. Kav LaOved asked the agency to produce salary slips, though none were ever presented. As employees organized, several were fired, and some concern rose among workers. But they continued to demand their rights be protected and ensured. In July, MOITAL agents visited the slaughterhouse and pressured the employer and the placement agency to improve conditions. But they in turn tried to identify the workers who complained.
Both MOITAL visits in Mishor Adumum were the only ones conducted by the ministry’s enforcement wing in the area. It is difficult to determine whether this is the start of stricter enforcement by MOITAL, or whether the two visits that had little or no effect were a single isolated activity.
The Legal Path
Kav LaOved is contacted by both Israeli and migrant workers, who often win claims even before the legal system is involved. In 2010, 102 Israeli workers received compensation after lodging complaints, while 62 were compensated only after a labor court’s ruling. In total, 67,000 shekels were won through mediation, compared to 19,000 shekels received by order of the court.
With migrant workers the numbers are more dramatic, with 569 complaints lodged during 2010, totaling 809,000 shekels won in mediation, compared with 201 lawsuits that won 96,000 shekels.
Kav LaOved’s complaint system is based on a mediation effort prior to using the court system. It is generally carried out by volunteers with legal training, but has proved unsuccessful with Palestinian workers in settlements.
Class action lawsuits in Israel generally take 3-4 years to complete. Such a lawsuit against the “Barbur Laundrette” in the Mishor Adumim Industrial Zone lasted 4 years, until workers were compensated through the National Insurance Institute. Some “Royalife” workers in the Barkan Industrial Zone were awarded compensation based on a compromise, while others continue their legal fight. Workers at the “Even Bar” quarry in Mishor Adumim are continuing a 3 year legal battle against the company, its owner Eyal Yonah and its manager Yigal Zaken.
In court, employers try and bypass the High Court’s decision by claiming that they are subject to Jordanian law, or that they match PA salaries, or by blaming Palestinian labor contractors who recruit the workers for labor law violations.
It is difficult to prove that workers are being terminated because of their efforts to organize labor, due to problems that may arise if union leaders are exposed. An example can be drawn from Palestinian “Soda Club” workers who have been battling for better work conditions for the past 2 years. In February 2010, workers formed an informal union in order to obtain unpaid salaries. The battle was conducted against both the company and the labor contractor. The results of the struggle were that salaries were paid, fired employees returned to work a week later, and workers were directly employed with no contractors or middlemen. Another result was the firing of two workers who led the struggle. In May, Kav LaOved represented the two fired workers in a Jerusalem labor court, but did not manage to return them to work.
Most workers who appear in court have no salary slips or any documentation. Most individual court cases end in a settlement. Some workers are intimidated by a court appearance. A. worked in a Barkan bakery and is currently suing his employer. He is having a hard time distinguishing between the labor court and the military court and asks whether “the court will send me to prison or fine me because I sued my employer?”
More obstacles lie in the path of workers trying to realize their rights, such as bureaucracy at the National Insurance Institute, which is supposed to handle work-related accidents. Palestinian workers report that the process of recognizing them as victims of work accidents can take a year on average. The reasons are varied: the workers receive the initial medical care in the Palestinian Authority, and not Israel, and the lack of salary slips to prove the relation between the worker and the workplace.
An additional challenge entails continued safety breaches and the exposure of workers to hazardous materials and conditions, with no adequate protection. In addition, it is difficult to get workers to undergo medical examinations in the factory or in Israel. Hence, thousands of workers are at risk of work-related medical issues without even knowing it.
Another challenge was the exposure of the bureaucracy concerning the work permit process. In 2010 we encountered problems helping employees who had been denied permits for security reasons. In March we received 69 cases of workers whose permits were frozen. Gisha (the legal center for freedom of movement) managed to resolve only 7 cases.
Palestinian workers in settlements have enjoyed widespread exposure in both the Palestinian and international media. A soon-to-be released documentary will focus on child labor in the Jordan Valley. Nevertheless, the Israeli media continues to ignore stories of Palestinian workers employed in settlements.
The Israeli media is a barrier which must be lifted in order to reach Israeli public opinion and to exert pressure on employers and the state to follow on its responsibility and to monitor employment conditions in settlements.
Palestinian Workers Need Protection
Kav LaOved manages a joint project along with Palestinian General Federation of Trade Union branches in Jericho, Qalqilya and Salfit to support the labor rights of Palestinians employed in settlements regardless of the changing political reality which is never unequivocal and is full of contradictions. It is still unclear what will be the fate of thousands of Palestinians workers employed in this “no-man’s land.” But it is obvious they will require legal advice that will grant them the protection they direly need.