Imagine the following scenario: Five men in a small room are applying heat-resistant paint to aluminum products. The room isn’t ventilated, and the workers have no masks. They know this isn’t either healthy or safe for them, but they’re not complaining.
And imagine this: Forty workers at an industrial complex in the desert. They have one small refrigerator at their disposal. The cold water runs out after an hour. For the rest of the workday, they drink tap water from a pipe outside.
And how about this: The worker gets paid at the end of the month NIS 90 for every day he worked. The minimum wage is NIS 23 an hour, mind you. There’s no pay slip, no social benefits, no sick days or vacation.
He cashes the check with a man who charges him a 2% commission. Sometimes he asks for a NIS 500 advance, and the boss charges him NIS 1,000 at the end of the month − simply because he can. The boss also under-reports the hours worked, writing eight instead of 10. If the employee is sick, he’ll be charged NIS 20 for the ride he missed, since his seat was left empty. If he stands up for his rights, he’ll be fired on the spot.
At the Adumim Industrial Park, which is within the Ma’aleh Adumim municipal boundaries, most of the factories and businesses are Israeli-owned. The workers are Palestinian − from Jericho, Abu Dis and other communities near Jerusalem. Israeli inspectors don’t go there.
“They’re taking advantage of us simply because they can,” says Abdallah (not his real name) from Jericho. “The bosses’ favorite statement is ‘Go to Palestine.’ They know that in Palestine workers are paid NIS 50 a day, so NIS 90 a day is a lot of money. We also know that Israeli law, which should apply here, too, is not being observed. We work in Israel and want to be given what we’re owed, no more and no less.”
The workers’ rights organization Ma’an recently launched a campaign in the industrial zone. “Workers are contacting us and telling us about incidents that are repeated over and over,” says Assaf Adiv, the organization’s director. “It’s always a gross exploitation of worker rights. As a representative organization, we want to help create a union to formalize the employees’ conduct with management. Because of the history of this place, this isn’t a simple process.”
The industrial park was created in 1998 and is managed by the Ma’aleh Adumim Economic Development Corporation. While it contains some large factories such as SodaStream, most of the businesses there are small workshops in industries such as aluminum profiles, woodworking and textiles.
It sits on the seam line between Israel and the Palestinian territories, putting it in Area C, which is under Israeli military and civil control. This means that the Palestinians need permits to work there. As far as the employers are concerned, though, they’re outside the law.
“This is a no-man’s land,” says Adiv. “Industry, Trade and Labor Ministry inspectors don’t enter Area C since it’s not under Israeli sovereignty, but they’re the only ones who can enforce labor laws.”
The industrial complex’s location on the seam line created an unusual legal situation. Until 2007, it wasn’t clear what labor laws applied there, so Jordanian law from 1966 was used. “That’s a very old law that doesn’t really guarantee labor rights,” says Adiv.”It was very difficult to complain when employers didn’t give pay slips or vacation.”
In 2007, the High Court of Justice ruled that settlements and nearby industrial zones need to follow Israeli labor laws in their entirety. “There may be no differentiation between [Israeli] workers and their Palestinian peers,” states the ruling.
“That was a significant turning point,” says Adiv. “It created a legal basis for workers to stop submitting to exploitation.” The big factories quickly started treating their Palestinian workers in keeping with Israeli law, generally because they faced potential lawsuits. But the smaller companies simply have ignored the High Court ruling, says Adiv.
“We estimate that 95% of the smaller factories haven’t changed their modus operandi,” says Abdallah, who knows the companies in the area well. “The only exceptions are those who have enough workers who aren’t willing to accept this behavior and have sued.”
Over the years, a healthy legal industry has popped up in the region as well, as workers sue employers. “There are lots of lawyers, some better than others, who handle these cases,” says Abdallah.
How does it work? “Workers go to their employer and demand their rights − retroactively, too. They do this after having contracted a lawyer and figuring out exactly what they’re owed. Some employers are willing to pay, but most do one of two things − they either fire the worker on the spot and the worker generally then sues, or they reach a compromise. I went to my employer, Aluminum Construction, and demanded NIS 40,000 for the four years I was employed. He fired me, but doesn’t want to wind up in court, since he knows the court will rule in my favor. He was willing to compromise at NIS 13,000. I contacted Ma’an, and now he’s willing to give me NIS 16,000, but it’s still not enough. I’m not the only one, of course. This is how they behave.”
What will happen? “If he doesn’t pay, we’ll go to court. There aren’t many options.”
Are there workers who are willing to compromise? “Many are willing to settle for small sums in order to keep their jobs. Some have been with their employers for 10 or 20 years. It’s not simple. We don’t have anywhere to work, and the employers take advantage of this.”
And how about those who won’t settle? “They go to court and risk unemployment.”
How do you pay the attorney? “From what the court gives you. That’s also the incentive to sue − the worker doesn’t pay the attorney.”
The factories that are willing to compromise then start obeying labor laws for all their workers? “Some do, most don’t.”
Kav L’oved’s Hanna Zohar has more tales of abuse. “The management at Aluminum Construction demanded that their workers sign agreements forgoing all retroactive rights,” she says. “Three refused. The management filed a complaint against them with the police alleging ‘damage.’ The moment a police complaint is filed against a Palestinian worker, he loses his entry permit to Israel. It’s a very tough situation, and obviously very scary. For the exploitative employer it’s easy to submit a police complaint to create pressure. Ultimately, one worker was offered a handsome sum and he gave in. With the two others, we’ve had to work very hard to get back their entry permits to Israel, and the case is still going on in court.”
Nothing will change here until violators are punished, adds Adiv. In 2009, a group of 50 Palestinians employed at a stone quarry in the area contacted his organization, which helped them form a union.
“They suffered from exactly the same problems − poor safety, payment by check or in cash, ridiculous sums for the hours they worked. Meanwhile the quarry went into receivership and the workers couldn’t even get National Insurance payments or receive their salaries since their employer, who had paid them small sums under the table, hadn’t made National Insurance payments on their behalf.”
Currently Abdallah and his colleagues in the campaign are unemployed, but they’re not really worried. If things get too bad, they’ll find new jobs and simply agree to accept illegally low wages for hard work. As to whether they’ll be hired given their history of labor rights campaigning, Abdallah says with a smile, “These employers don’t know us. The workers come and go, they don’t even bother knowing who we are. They’ll take us back simply because they don’t remember.”
The Industry, Trade and Labor Ministry stated in response that it is aware of the problem and is working with the Civil Administration and Justice Ministry to set up a security arrangement that would enable its inspectors to cross the Green Line. “Currently, as noted, the ministry does not have the authority to enforce the law in communities on the other side of the Green Line,” it stated.