Around 5 A.M., before sunrise, a Palestinian in the Jordan Valley leaves for work. There’s not much time. He has to reach the junction a few hundred meters away by 5:30. From there, he’ll go to work in one of the area’s Jewish settlements. Some go by foot, others in a vehicle usually belonging to a Palestinian subcontractor. They gather at the Moshav Tomer entrance, hop on a big wagon tied to a tractor, and head down a dirt road toward the vineyard.
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Among the workers are Yusef, Mohammed and Ali, all aged 14-15. The boys use fake names out of fear of retribution from their employer.
Others on the crowded wagon look even younger. It’s hard to know for sure, but no one’s checking. Moshav Tomer’s security guard stands watching on the side. The workday begins.
Not even the Palestinian middlemen are concerned by the children’s ages. Their ability to survive economically depends almost entirely on working in the settlements. In April, Human Rights Watch issued a 74-page report (“Ripe for Abuse: Palestinian Child Labor in Israeli Agricultural Settlements in the West Bank”), stating that the settlements, primarily ones in the Jordan Valley, employ hundreds of Palestinian youths, many of them under the age of 15 (the legal working age).
The law places several limitations on how many hours children can work daily or weekly, and the type of labor. It’s hard to find observance here of the laws and local regulations, as well as the United Nations and International Labor Organization conventions to which Israel is a signatory. The lack of registration and supervision is part of the Israeli system of control, and allows those involved to close their eyes. It seems the settlements prefer it this way.
“We don’t hire children directly, period,” insists David Elhayani, head of the Jordan Valley Regional Council. “We don’t follow the contractors. Responsibility for the workers is theirs.”
10-12 hour workday
Yusef and Mohammed are 15. They describe a workday that lasts until 1 P.M., including a “half-hour break at 10:30 for breakfast and rest.” Ali, 14, says he left school last year and that he mainly works in Tomer’s vineyards.
“We carry the crates and thin out the vines so the grape bunches will grow nicely,” says Ali. “The work is done one row at a time, and you have to finish it. Sometimes it’s hard to stand bent over for so long.”
Peeking at the hothouses, fields and vineyards in the settlements along Highway 90 (which traverses the valley), one can spot other youths. Some smile silently when we inquire about their age.
The Human Rights Watch report was based on interviews with 38 children and 12 adults conducted in 2014. All of them were working in agriculture at various Jordan Valley settlements. The NGO also interviewed subcontractors and a number of educators in the region. Among the minors, 30 said they started working before age 15, most of them when they were 13 or 14. The youngest boy interviewed, who worked part-time in settlements, was 11, but one mentioned working alongside a 10-year-old.
The report estimates that at the height of the harvest season, upward of 1,000 youngsters work in the settlements. A workday can last 10-12 hours at this time. The work includes picking, cleaning, sorting and packing produce such as grapes, tomatoes, sweet peppers, onions and dates.
The report includes many testimonies by children regarding the work conditions.
“If you sit down while you’re working with peppers or grapes, the supervisor will come and tell you to stand up and not take a break,” says I.A., a 15-year-old girl from Fasil. “We don’t get bathrooms – we get permission from the supervisor to go out in the fields. They are always yelling at us, not insulting us but saying, ‘Work faster, you’re too slow.’”
F., 13, works picking peppers. “I have to do 10 rows of peppers a day,” he tells the report. “I wanted to leave one time but the supervisor told me, ‘No, you have to stay until you finish 10 rows.’”
According to some of the children, they suffered from vomiting, dizziness and rashes after the crops were sprayed with pesticides. They had almost no protective gear to wear. Others spoke about extended work hours during the summer, while they were on vacation from school, and of temperatures reaching 40 degrees Celsius – and it was even hotter in the greenhouses.
M., 16, who had dropped out of school two years earlier, talked about a fainting spell he suffered while spraying, picking and packing peppers in a greenhouse.
“I couldn’t see, passed out and the middleman took me home,” he recalled. “I took myself home when it happened the next day. On the third day, I took myself home, then to the hospital in Jericho, where they gave me headache pills and said it was heatstroke.” M. said he was fired after fainting for five consecutive days.
No pay slip or benefits
According to Ali, his and others’ daily wage is about 80 shekels ($20.80), working six days a week. The HRW report mentions daily wages of 70 shekels. According to the report, the Palestinian contractor takes a commission of 15-25 shekels per worker under his care. Based on these figures, Ali’s hourly wage averages out to 10 shekels. According to Israeli law, the minimum wage is proportional based on age – ranging from 18.80 shekels per hour for a 16-year-old, to 22.30 shekels for an 18-year-old.
No one even talks about the legal requirements to provide a pay slip or social benefits. It also appears the workers’ lack of recognition is symptomatic: The youths say that settlers speak to them only in exceptional circumstances.
Yusef and Mohammed say they are still in school, in contrast to Ali. Other youths work part-time in the settlements, based on seasonal requirements or their family’s economic needs. “I don’t like studying. It’s my decision to go to work,” says Ali.
According to a source in one of the Palestinian schools in the region, children start dropping out in eighth grade, around age 14. The dropout rate is over 50 percent among boys. “These children don’t have much choice. The economic situation is very hard, and they are expected to help their families,” says the source.
The HRW report notes that all children and adults interviewed said they started working in settlements out of a lack of alternatives and a need to help their families financially.
Settlers quickly block any attempts to speak with the youths, on the grounds that they are on private property. According to the HRW report, none of the children had ever spoken with an Israeli labor inspector.
"According to international law, the very establishment of settlements in the Jordan Valley and Israel's exploitation of its resources are illegal. However, this does not exempt Israel from its commitment to prevent child labor," said Uri Zaki, a Human Rights Watch representative in Israel.
"This commitment is enshrined both in international law and the laws of the State of Israel. The bureaucratic dispute between the Economy Ministry and the Civil Administration, responsible for enforcing labor laws in the settlements, has lasted far too long. Meanwhile, children continue to work," Zaki continued.
"This phenomenon can be reasonably enforced and quickly eradicated, and would prevent at least one of the violations of the law regarding the settlements."
The Economy Ministry responded, “As of today, the child labor law does not apply to Judea and Samaria.” The ministry noted that since the High Court of Justice ruled that Israeli employers are obliged to pay Palestinian workers according to Israeli law, work has been done to apply Israeli labor laws in Judea and Samaria. “An interministerial team that dealt with the matter prepared a draft of labor laws that the government seeks to implement in Judea and Samaria, but the work was stopped as a result of the previous Knesset disbanding and early elections, and has yet to be renewed,” the ministry said.
Elhayani, meanwhile, stated that the role of the security guard cited in this article is not to observe or monitor the Palestinian workers, but rather to “protect the vineyards from break-ins and thefts.”
“We have excellent relations with our Palestinian neighbors,” he added. “They host us, even in villages in Area B [under Palestinian civilian control but Israeli military control], and receive us with dancing and rejoicing. We get along excellently with them.”