One of the cruelest ironies of the occupation is that Palestinians are building it. Tens of thousands of laborers are employed in construction of the wall, settlements and the industries around them. Their cooperation does not go unpunished. Despite a 2007 Israeli High Court ruling that gave the same rights to Palestinians working in settlements as Israelis, the reality is still low wages, hazardous conditions and no job security.
The Barkan industrial area is the hub of discontent. It stands not a stone’s throw from Ariel, the largest settlement in the West Bank and home to 30,000. Over 100 companies from around the world are based in Barkan, employing over 6,000 people, more than half of whom are Palestinian. The 2007 ruling had the effect of upping wages to an average of 10 shekels (2.67 US dollars) an hour, but employers have found creative methods of swindling their workforce. Increasingly, recruitment is arranged via subcontractors, either Palestinian or Israeli, who provide bulk quantities of desperate laborers for the factories. Palestine General Federation Of Trade Union (PGFTU) legal adviser Fatih Nasir estimates subcontractors take “40% of a worker’s daily wage.”
No contract is signed and the overall employer applies for temporary permits, usually three months, on behalf of his workers. Such an arrangement makes employment status ambiguous, meaning that when challenged on the conditions of his workforce, an employer can deny responsibility. Many workers believe they are working for the subcontractor. A joint survey from international human rights groups found that less than a quarter of Barkan employees receive official wage slips, while just 34% earn minimum wage. Where slips are provided they often contain inaccurate information that allows an employer to pay less.
Fatah Nasir describes a recent case of a worker being paid for 14 days of a month when he had actually worked 24. The official hours were doctored to match minimum wage requirements.
Often the subcontractor will recruit from his own village, getting the best deals for company bosses at the expense of their neighbors. Sulwa Alenat of the influential human rights group Kavlaoved believes employer and contractor work closely to suppress dissent. “If there is a complaint they will cooperate and threaten the worker. In this way the contractor stays in a powerful position. This will only change if more people start to challenge their conditions.”
Employers rarely take any responsibility for health and safety. Accidents are frequent in such dangerous industries as steelwork and construction, with few precautions to prevent them. Alenat is very familiar with the problem. “Injuries are very common and the victims never receive compensation. We send inquiries to the National Institute of Israel but receive no reply. No one is ever questioned and there is never compensation provided. Employers will not pay for someone to be treated in an Israeli hospital so ambulances will just drive them to the nearest checkpoint and tell the worker to get a taxi to a Palestinian hospital.”
The case of Yousef Najada exemplifies the injustice. In August 2008 he injured his eye working in Tomer settlement in the Jordan Valley. The accident occurred at 8am, after which Najada was forced to take a taxi alone to the hospital in Jericho. After receiving first aid he was referred to the Muslim clinic in Ramallah, then took another taxi to Ramallah. When he got to the clinic he was evacuated by a Red Crescent ambulance to the St. George Hospital in Jerusalem, arriving at 2pm. Only then did he receive medical care, which he paid for himself.
Last year five workers in the Jordan Valley fell when the scaffold they were working on collapsed. They have not been able to work since and have not been compensated. In many cases workers are fired if they are too badly injured to work for a long time. Israeli law stipulates workers must receive 90 days paid recuperation in the case of accidents but Palestinians never see this. An anonymous worker from Barkan suffered a hand injury and was told “to come back the next day or to leave permanently.”
Alenat believes the lack of dissent in these cases reflects the desperation of people forced into this way of life. “Most people working in the industrial area cannot find jobs in Palestine or Israel. They continue working around settlements for a long period of time and eventually bring their families and children in too. Most of them work in very low positions in factories, never rising higher than a supervisor.”
Sadly, there is little choice for the Arab population here. A Palestinian woman who has worked for several years in a Barkan textile factory explained why she is there; “Our village is blocked by Israeli checkpoints making it almost impossible to sell or manufacture anything by ourselves. My husband doesn’t get a working permit to enter Israel. Our farmland where we had our income has been taken by the Israelis. So what choice do we have? My family needs to eat.”
Israel acknowledges that a large part of the industrial zone is built on private Palestinian land, around 14% by Peace Now statistics. With this went the source of income for many families based in the region, including 70 hectares of olive trees, bulldozed in the 1980s. Some families have initiated legal proceedings against the occupying industries, on the basis that settling on private land is illegal, but except in one case (the farmer received 1.5 hectares compensation) these appeals have been fruitless.
The rapid expansion of Barkan has come about through the favorable tax and cheap land available on Palestinian land, as well as the lax laws governing worker’s rights. Floor space costs approximately half what it would inside Israel’s borders, leading to an influx of international investors. Who Profits, an offshoot of the Coalition of Women For Peace, details companies from Sweden, the Netherlands, Great Britain and, predictably, the USA, who have a presence in Barkan. Pressure from human rights groups has succeeded in embarrassing the foreign investors exploiting the conditions.
A report published by Swedwatch and Diakonia probed the murky business practices of Assa Abloy, a Swedish company running the Mul-T-lock factory in Barkan. It challenged the company bosses for profiting from an illegally situated factory and bought attention to the degrading conditions of their employees. For a country renowned for a liberal foreign policy, the findings were sufficiently uncomfortable for Assa Abloy to relocate its factory, noting the “inappropriateness” of manufacturing in the West Bank. The realization took them eight years. Following their withdrawal, Barkan Wineries, a subsidiary of Heineken, also shut down its operation. In a statement, company spokesmen acknowledged the motive was purely political.
Putting pressure on Israeli employers has proved far more difficult. Kavlaoved helped 40 employees of Royal Life to bring a legal case against their bosses, in protest over payment below minimum wage. Several were sacked and others claim to have received death threats. “Some workers have been offered a small compensation,” Alenat reveals, “but they do not accept because it is not a fair offer.” Alenat believes trade unions are becoming more effective at mobilizing worker activism; “they are changing and improving, now that they are less distracted by politics. Lawsuits against employers are more common now and workers are beginning to understand their rights better.” Still it remains a struggle to cajole impoverished workers into risking their income, knowing full well that such an action would likely result in their sacking.
The case against Royal Life is ongoing and will likely prove a landmark case whatever the final outcome. If it is in favor of the workers many more cases will follow and conditions should improve for settlement workers all over the country. If the High Court rules against them it will be one of the clearest signs yet that Palestinian workers are deemed unworthy of basic human rights. Kieron Monks is a freelance reporter from London. He is working as an assistant editor at the Palestine Monitor in Ramallah, as well as news magazines and websites in the UK.