This Synagogue Furniture Factory Is Actually a Sweatshop That Tramples Palestinians' Rights

The Israeli employers stepped up the abuse once the Palestinian workers decided to unionize

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The Mishor Adumim industrial zone in the West Bank.
The Mishor Adumim industrial zone in the West Bank.Credit: Olivier Fitoussi
Tali Heruti-Sover.
Tali Heruti-Sover

The Hayei Adam (Life of Man) carpentry shop in Mishor Adumim, the industrial zone of the West Bank settlement of Ma’aleh Adumim, manufactures furniture for synagogues. It’s owner is an ultra-Orthodox, or Haredi, Jew, but the workers are Palestinians. From a conversation with a few of them I learned that the carpentry shop is actually a sweatshop, just outside this thriving city. The workers have no means of protection. If they’re injured or burned on the job, they have to look after themselves. Their salaries – far below the minimum wage – are paid late, in cash, without a salary slip. The employers deduct 1 percent from their pay, because “that’s the commission for cashing a check.” There is no pension, no sick leave, no vacation, nor are employees supplied with work clothes or shoes. They bring their lunch from home. When the workers organized a shaded corner for half an hour of rest, the foreman tore it down.

Recently, the workers say, they decided to unionize with the aid of WAC-MAAN, the Workers Advice Center, the only labor organization out of four in the country that cares about and deals with Palestinian workers. The real abuse started immediately after the NGO approached the representative of the owner of the shop, attorney Arik Naor. A Palestinian labor contractor arrived at the factory with more men, possessing illegal work permits. The message was clear: Make trouble and you’ll be replaced. One of the unionizers was sent home, but not without a small bonus: His Civil Administration permit, issued specifically for work at one place – in his case, the carpentry shop – was extended by four months, meaning that he can’t work anywhere else.

In the past few months the employers had magnanimously paid 250 shekels (about $70) a month for travel expenses, but when the labor organizing began – that, too, disappeared.

Any reasonable person will ask himself why the workers insist on staying there and getting 140 shekels ($39) a day (190 shekels for veteran employees) for 8.5 hours of work in harsh conditions without basic social rights. The reason: In Palestine, they would make even less. A professional metalworker gets 90 shekels ($25) a day in Ramallah, a carpenter even less.

But young Palestinians are no longer the greenhorns their forebears were. They’re familiar with High Court of Justice rulings stipulating that their rights as workers in the occupied territories are the same as those of Jewish workers. They’re also familiar with the recent historic court decision in WAC’s favor, in a case involving workers in a Mishor Adumim garage. The garage owners were ordered to pay each worker tens if not hundreds of thousands of shekels after years of trampling the law. Today, wages paid in an orderly and lawful way.

Attorney Naor, too, is aware of that ruling. But that doesn’t stop him from postponing one meeting after another with the workers’ representatives. Now, the fear is that the “doomsday weapon” will be deployed: closure of the carpentry shop. Some of the current workers endured that experience in 2008 (at the time the business was called the Y. Eilenberg carpentry shop). One day, they relate, the Haredi owner, Reuben Finkelstein, arrived with his son, Eli, and announced that they were bankrupt. The employees were sent to claim their outstanding pay from the National Insurance Institute.

Shortly afterward, in the same place, a carpentry shop with the same workers was established, though it now bore a different name: Hayei Adam. According to the information filed with the Registrar of Companies, all the shares of Y. Eilenberg were transferred to Shimon Weinreich of 2 Kibbutz Galuyot Street, Bnei Brak, and to an American company called Empire Industrial Combustion, Inc.

A search for Weinreich reveals that he’s in New York. In a phone conversation, he says he is no longer connected with Hayei Adam. When I call the American company, Empire, however, I’m told that Weinreich is the owner and that “he will soon be here” – in the New York office. I tell the nice fellow who answers me in broken Hebrew that I want to buy furniture for a synagogue, and, in a fusion of Hebrew and English, he refers me to Moishe, in “our factory in Jerusalem.” The factory, he says, is called Y. Eilenberg. A call there is answered by Avi in the Hayei Adam carpentry shop.

WAC doesn’t intend to give up on unionizing the carpentry shop or on signing a collective agreement that will regularize the workers’ rights and compensate them retroactively for all the years in which they were deprived of them. If the NGO succeeds, yet another sweatshop will disappear from Mishor Adumim.

Naor, the lawyer, had the following to say to Haaretz: “Due to time constraints, a meeting has not yet taken place, which will undoubtedly be held in the near future. Mr. Finkelstein is not the owner of the carpentry shop, and is not the one who went bankrupt. The company also works via suppliers and other service providers. The allegation that those suppliers employ workers who do not have employment permits is not correct. Most of the allegations by the workers about the working conditions and their salary are not correct. We assume that these things will come up during the collective negotiations.”