online 25.02.14

economy and labor

Palestinian workers in Israeli settlements: Contending with a regime of work permits and limited rights

by Assaf Adiv

Scarlet Johansson did not intend to, but when the Hollywood actress represented SodaStream, an Israeli company operating in the occupied territories, and claimed that the Palestinian workers receive the same full rights as their Israeli counterparts, she raised an international media storm. Responding to criticism that the plant’s location in occupied territory violates international law, SodaStream CEO Daniel Birnbaum claimed, “We are very proud of our plant in Mishor Adumim. It must be understood, the plant employs both Israelis and Palestinians. All workers have equal rights. We call this an ‘island of peace’” (from Israel Hayom, 3 Feb. 2014).

However, reality in these industrial zones is far from an “island of peace.” Since the 1970s, hundreds of Israeli plants, factories, agricultural businesses and construction sites have been operating in the West Bank settlements, employing some 20,000 Palestinian workers at any given time. For years these workplaces operated far from the public eye. Business owners were granted huge discounts on land leases and tax benefits, hiring workers at wages far below the legal minimum in Israel, without the required social benefits. This continued despite the High Court ruling in the 2007 “Kav Laoved” case, which determined that there was no reason to discriminate between Israeli and Palestinian workers, and that Israeli labor laws were applicable to Israeli employers in the settlements.

To work for Israelis, Palestinians must be registered and obtain special work permits from the Coordination and Liaison Office of the Civil Administration , and the permits must be renewed every few months (see this report on the bureaucracy of occupation). However, there is no oversight of employment terms or enforcement of labor law or safety regulations. Labor Ministry inspectors are currently authorized to investigate Palestinian employment conditions relating only to the minimum wage. But even this is rarely done. Not a single Israeli employer has been charged with labor law violations in the settlements. (Some court decisions in favor of Palestinian workers have been given in recent years, but none charged the employer with violation of the law.) In fact, the settlements have become a legal no-man’s land, outside Israeli sovereignty and thus beyond the reach of Israeli enforcement authorities.

Wages in these areas are between one quarter and one half that of equivalent workers in Israel. Many receive their wages in cash, without a pay slip and without social benefits. SodaStream and some other firms now pay the legal minimum wage, but most workers are shamelessly exploited.

Struggling to establish a legal framework

SodaStream and Extal Aluminum are two of the large companies that were compelled to abide by Israeli law as a result of the long legal struggle that resulted in the 2007 ruling. However, this struggle is not yet over: these companies continue to appeal the High Court ruling, claiming they are bound only by Jordanian law, which was in force in the West Bank before Israel conquered the territory in 1967.

Thus, for example, Yamit Purification and Filtration Systems in the Nitzanei Shalom industrial zone (near Tul Karem) dismissed some of its workers without paying them compensation. When the workers sued for compensation, the company’s representative claimed in court that his client was subject to Jordanian law from 1966. Moreover, ruling on this case in November 2013, the Tel Aviv Labor Court determined that the workers had no rights under Israeli labor law and demanded that the Palestinian workers pay 20,000 shekels to Yamit.

Advocate Ehud Shiloni and the Workers Advice Center (WAC-MAAN) have recently appealed against this scandalous ruling. The appeal is based on the High Court ruling in the Kav Laoved case from 2007. In the appeal, Adv. Shiloni explains how absurd it is to apply the Jordanian law to these areas. “Israeli industrial zones in the West Bank are a tangle of legal systems,” he wrote. “The owners are Israeli and subject to Israeli law; the workers are Palestinians and thus subject to the Palestinian Authority laws; and the Jordanian law which was applicable in that area before June 1967 is ineffectual in practice and obsolete” (from the notice of appeal, 2 Feb. 2014).

The absurdity of invoking Jordanian law is evident. According to the Fourth Geneva Convention, an occupying force must refrain from making permanent changes on the ground or in legislation, except for temporary changes for military purposes. The businesses under discussion were set up on occupied territory, changing the status quo permanently with no “temporary military need.” Meanwhile, the owners of the businesses make manipulative use of Jordanian law from 1966, which has long been invalid, even in Jordan. This is nothing but a nonsensical attempt to give legal legitimacy to the ignominious exploitation of Palestinian workers. If the court rules in favor of the business owners, it will grant a seal of approval for a system in which Israeli employers benefit from having no responsibility to their workers at all.

The terror of the work-permit regime

It must be noted that Palestinian workers from the settlement areas do not enjoy freedom of movement and have little choice regarding their place of work. The economic misery and high unemployment in areas ruled by the Palestinian Authority (PA) compels them to accept humiliating wages and poor employment terms. All import of raw materials and export of goods from the PA areas is dependent on Israel; clearly the 47 years of complete Israeli control of these areas has a decisive role in preventing their economic development.

In the settlements the Palestinians encounter other obstacles: obtaining a work permit from the Coordination and Liaison Office of the Civil Administration and making an Israeli contact. Work permits are required in the industrial zones, construction sites and agricultural projects in the settlements but are granted for a period of just a few months. Many Palestinians cannot work in these areas because the army prevents them from obtaining a permit for various reasons.

Moreover, even those with a permit are under constant threat of having it revoked. Many workers report that employers make manipulative use of the “security” process to revoke permits if they want to dismiss workers. A worker in one of the larger plants reported that after he asked about his employment rights and demanded he receive benefits as required by law, his permit was revoked. When he inquired at the Coordination and Liaison Office, he discovered there were no security claims against him. Nonetheless, he had to wait six months for the permit to be renewed. During this period he was unable to work and received no compensation. This worker and his fellow workers talked about the “atmosphere of terror” at their workplace, since at any moment the employer can get the work permit revoked.

This situation makes it very difficult for workers to organize. In some places where WAC tried to organize, we met people without permits who had a “deal” with the employer, who paid them cash with no papers. These workers feared that any step they took to obtain labor rights would cause the employer to stop their work, using the lack of a permit as a pretext.

The authorities turn their backs

The vast majority of Israeli plants and businesses in the settlement areas continue to take advantage of their workers. There are no clear statistics about these businesses, but for more than six years, WAC activists have reported incidents in which the authorities have ignored violations of labor law by employers. (See reports by WAC on violation of workers’ rights in the settlements. See also Kav Laoved report from Oct. 2013 that lists names of employers in the settlements who clearly breach the law. See also the documentary “Seeds of Peace” that tells the story of Palestinian workers in the Tulkarm area who fought the Israeli employer to get their rights.)

In these plants, it has become normal to employ Palestinians without wage slips and without detailing hours worked. Workers receive some 2500 shekels a month (about half the legal minimum) with no social benefits. Arbitrary and peremptory dismissals are routine, and a worker injured on the job is sent away like a broken tool.

In May 2013, Tali Heruti-Sover, editor of the careers section in The Marker, published an article about the regular violations of labor law in the settlement industrial zones. (See the Marker, “An Israeli industrial park - a wild West Bank for labour rights.”) Knesset Member Tamar Zandberg (Meretz) then demanded that Economics Minister Naftali Bennett investigate the rights of workers in Area C (the areas under Israeli control according to the Oslo Accords). This led to an inter-ministerial committee, including representatives from the Economics Ministry, the Finance Ministry, the Coordinator of Government Activities in the Territories and the Justice Ministry, charged with determining the legal status of Palestinian workers in the settlements. The committee has yet to submit its final report, even though it was scheduled to do so in December 2013. It appears that the committee’s debates have petered out quietly.

A tangible way to fight the occupation

Some claim that the very presence of Palestinians working in the settlements grants legitimacy to the occupation. Some even claim that demanding that Palestinian workers receive the same conditions as Israelis is tantamount to recognizing that these areas have been annexed to Israel. But for those Palestinians employed at the plants and construction sites, there is no employment alternative in PA areas, and thus they have no choice.

If we look at the issue from a political point of view, it is clear that the establishment of the PA in the West Bank did not change the reality of the occupation: Israel controls the borders, resources and economy, and it decides what will operate or be established in the region, including in the areas ostensibly under PA control. Those who call on the Palestinians to leave their jobs in the settlements are hurting the workers. The struggle against the occupation and the settlements requires a comprehensive political solution that will put an end to Israel’s theft of land and colonial control over Palestinian lives.

The workers’ struggle for employment rights and decent working conditions, supported by Israeli and Palestinian unions and organizations such as WAC and Kav Laoved, does not contradict the demand for Palestinian independence. On the contrary: the more such worker organizations expose the exploitation of Palestinians in Israeli businesses, the more they expose the character of the occupation. Thus they show the Israeli public the significance and implications of the occupation, raising awareness about these workers as they struggle for their basic rights. Palestinians who receive support in their demands for a fair wage become an active factor in the struggle to change reality and create the basis for an active, dynamic civil society in the future Palestinian state.