Should they stay or should they go?

Palestinian workers are caught between employment in the settlements and low salaries and a lack of opportunities in the West Bank.

West Bank factory (photo credit: AMMAR AWAD / REUTERS)
West Bank factory
(photo credit: AMMAR AWAD / REUTERS)
 THE LOUD humming of machines, mixed with voices in Arabic, fills the air as Palestinian employees work on assembly lines of the Israeli SodaStream factory, located in the settlement of Mishor Adumim in the West Bank. The plant, which produces home-carbonation appliances, employs 950 Palestinians from the West Bank and East Jerusalem, and became the center of controversy after actress Scarlett Johansson broke away from the humanitarian agency Oxfam on January 30 over her endorsement of the company.
Ahmad Hamouri, 25, dressed in a white vest, is in charge of quality control. He walks around two dozen workers who are sitting at a long table assembling the various plastic and metal parts of the soda dispenser.
“It doesn’t make sense to work here, but it also doesn’t make sense to tell people to quit their job or not work here,” Hamouri tells The Jerusalem Report. “Our entire life is a contradiction,” he says with his arms crossed behind his back.
The factory is located in Mishor Adumim, an industrial zone that is part of the large urban settlement of Ma’aleh Adumim, built the arid hills of the West Bank, near Jerusalem. The international community deems settlements built on territory Israel occupied in the 1967 war as illegal, and Palestinians want the territory to be part of their future independent state. Israel disputes this and says it intends to keep Ma’aleh Adumim and most of the other settlement blocs under any peace deal.
SodaStream is one of hundreds of factories, farms and businesses that have set up shop in the West Bank, enjoying tax breaks and government subsidies. According to official statistics, 20,000 Palestinians are employed in the settlements, with over double that number working without permits.
Israel operates 16 industrial zones in the West Bank, with some 1,000 plants that manufacture everything from food to metal and furniture. Dozens of agricultural farms dot the Jordan Valley, producing fruits and vegetables that are sold locally and marketed abroad. Some 120 settlements in the West Bank are home to around 350,000 Jewish settlers.
Palestinians employed in the settlements say despite it being in contradiction to their national interests, it puts food on the table, since opportunities have become very scarce in the West Bank and salaries extremely low, compared to the swelling cost of living.
Taha Oweidat, 34, from the West Bank village of al-Ram, says he has been working for SodaStream for one year, assembling the plastic parts of the soda bottles. He used to work in a car garage in his hometown and barely made half of what he makes now, some NIS 5,000 ($1,400).
“We are benefiting greatly from this job,” Oweidat says. “Everyone knows that it’s extremely hard to survive on West Bank salaries.”
The West Bank suffers from a 23 percent unemployment rate and a 17 percent poverty rate, both on the rise in recent years. The World Bank, in a 2013 report, said settlements and long-standing Israeli restrictions on access and movement within most of the West Bank had stunted the Palestinian economy.
Analysts say pressure on Israel is mounting, especially from Europe, which is hoping that the threat of economic sanctions will force Israel to stop expanding its settlements and reach a peace deal with the Palestinians. Last year, the European Union passed a law that would prevent grants and funds from going to the settlements. Several businesses have also divested from Israeli companies with dealings in the settlements.
IN JANUARY, a large Dutch pension fund pulled its investment from five Israeli banks because of their dealings with the settlements; and a month earlier, a Dutch firm said it would not work with an Israeli utility company due to its ties to the West Bank.
Rights groups say settlement businesses are directly contributing to the worsening Palestinian economic conditions by taking up vast amounts of West Bank land and resources, and employers routinely exploit Palestinian workers by paying them unfair wages and failing to provide them with the social benefits to which they are legally entitled.
Settlement business owners refute this and say they provide steady incomes to thousands of Palestinian families, and encourage coexistence. “We’re an employer of equal opportunity, equal wages, equal benefits, and we’re proud of the peace that we’re making here every day,” SodaStream CEO Daniel Birnbaum told journalists during a news conference held at the plant in February.
Israeli labor watchdog Kav La’oved says in keeping with a 2007 High Court of Justice ruling, Israeli labor laws are supposed to apply in the settlements. But on the ground, there is little to no enforcement and many Palestinian workers suffer from “severe violations.”
In the West Bank city of Jericho, where the group maintains one of several offices, Palestinians carrying thin folders come in to consult with a legal adviser about issues they have faced in the workplace.
Abdel Hadi Obeiyat, 24, from the village of Fasayel near Jericho, says he worked in the Tomer agricultural settlement in the Jordan Valley for two years. He used to earn NIS 10 ($2.80) an hour, far below the required minimum wage of NIS 23 ($6.60). He says he got paid every month in cash for work that involved planting, picking or setting up greenhouses, often in the scorching heat. In return, he was only paid a low daily wage.
“It was an injustice,” Obeiyat, who is married with three children, tells The Report. “But we got the sense that we had to accept the reality for what it was.”
He says he earned on average NIS 1,500 ($430) a month, working most days of the week. He decided to quit the job after his employer refused to give him a raise, and has been unemployed since. “I was told if you’re not happy, here’s the door,” he says.
In a 2013 report, the United Nations International Labor Organization (ILO) said that 43 percent of Palestinians employed in the settlements were paid between NIS 1,500-NIS 2,500 ($430-$716).
“Work in settlements remains largely unregulated and is open to abuse,” the report said, and faulted Israeli authorities for failing to ensure and inspect wages, social insurance and occupational health and safety standards.
Abed Dari, a field researcher for Kav La’oved says Obeiyat is by no means alone, and given the lack of alternatives in the West Bank, some 6,000 Palestinians work in settlement farms in the Jordan Valley, where they are forced to accept jobs that pay far below the minimum wage.
HE SAYS of the 22 or so agricultural farms in the Jordan Valley, not one pays its Palestinian workers the Israeli minimum wage. And workers, who have no union to represent them, are a particularly vulnerable group and have few means of defending themselves. “Workers have no support or unions to protect them, this weakens them tremendously,” Dari tells The Report. “They are terrified of getting fired.”
Adding another layer of exploitation, most workers, Dari says, especially in the construction and agricultural sector, which makes up the majority of settlements labor, are employed through Palestinian contractors. He says contractors are in charge of recruiting workers, keeping track of their hours and paying them, usually in cash.
“Contractors work against the employees, they abuse them, and take high commissions off their labor,” Dari says.
Musa Shalouf, 38, also from Fasayel, says he worked for 5 years for a large agricultural farm in the Tomer settlement. He says he had just worked his way up to NIS 85 a day and was in charge of half a dozen other workers.
He says his contractor became threatened by him and began abusing him first by underreporting the hours he worked. Then one day he accused him of crashing his truck into the storage room. That evening, his boss called him and told him he was fired. “We are abused twice, first by the Palestinians, then by the Israelis,” he says.
He says the boss refused to hear his explanations and has so far refused to give him severance pay. The father of two says he is now working in another agricultural farm, under roughly the same conditions.
“All I think about is eating, working and sleeping, that’s it,” Shalouf says. “I can never introduce anything new in my life, or make an improvement. It would be absurd.”
According to a study conducted by Al Quds University, 82 percent of Palestinian workers would like to quit their jobs in the settlements if they were to find alternative employment in the West Bank, where the minimum monthly wage is currently set at NIS 1,450 ($415).
Diana Buttu, a lawyer who has done research on Palestinian labor, says unlike work in Israel, which is bound by a quota set by the Israeli authorities and work permits that are restricted by age and family status, work in the settlements is a “free for all,” with businesses operating with little to no legal inspection or enforcement.
“It’s the Wild West Bank; Israeli settlers can do whatever they want, whenever they want, ” Buttu tells The Report.
Buttu says the “boom” of working in the settlements started in the year 2000, when the second intifada erupted, and Israel increased restrictions on access and work inside the Green Line. That year, Israel also starting bringing in increasing numbers of foreign workers, mostly from former Soviet Union countries and South Asia, who have largely replaced the reliance on Palestinians.
The Palestinian Ministry of Labor says each month it helps facilitate on average 35,000 work permits to Israel proper, but it does not deal with labor in the settlements. Up to 80,000 Palestinians work in Israel, mostly in construction, about half without permits.
Director General at the Palestinian Ministry of Labor, Samer Salameh, says four years ago, the Palestinian Authority criminalized working in the settlements, and buying or selling settlement products. Though Palestinian police conducted confiscation raids on businesses selling the prohibited items, they stopped short of taking any measures against those directly employed in the settlements.
“We are caught between two fires,” Salame told The Report. “We strongly discourage work in the settlements, since the entire enterprise is illegal and illegitimate,” he says. “But given the high unemployment rate, and the lack of alternatives, we do not enforce the law that criminalizes work in the settlements.”
In downtown Ramallah, the West Bank city that is the hub of Palestinian political and commercial life, residents casually walk the busy streets, to shop or frequent the many popular cafés.
Samia Fares, 28, with bright headphones and a laptop, sitting in a smoke-filled coffee shop, says it’s “embarrassing” that there are so many Palestinians who are effectively building the very settlements that are standing in the way of their independent, contiguous state.
“It’s truly shameful that there are people willing to work these jobs,” Fares says. “But it’s just as wrong that we have failed to provide them with better, more honorable work,” she says, before putting her headphones back on.