Low Pay, No Leave: Jordan Valley Farmers Exploiting Palestinian Labor

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The space that Jamal Fukhah called 'his' in the banana plantation.Credit: Eyal Toueg

It’s 11 A.M. in the banana groves near the West Bank Palestinian village of Ein al-Bida in the northern Jordan Valley. The sun is already burning hot. But Jamal Fukhah, 54, had been used to it: the grove had been like his second home for the last three years. Though going by the hours he spent there, it was more like his first home.

Fukhah’s "personal space" had been an old cart leaning against a shipping container at the edge of the banana grove. A worn, ragged awning provided some relief from the sun, but there was electricity. Water was available - from irrigation pipes.

Fukhah spent 16 hours a day there, seven days a week, guarding the bananas. His employer was Kibbutz Ginosar, to the north on the shores of the Sea of Galilee. The site is in Area C, the part of the West Bank under full Israeli civilian and military control.

Fukhah would report for work at 2 P.M. every day, and finish at 6 A.M. the next day. If he couldn’t make it to a shift, he would ask a relative to fill in for him.

He received no paid vacation or paid sick days, and had to bring his own food and clothing from home, Fukhak says. He even had to buy the flashlight he used to look for intruders at night.

He earned only 100 shekels ($29) a day: 6.50 shekels an hour.

He says never received a formal pay slip. Instead, once a month, the manager of the kibbutz’s banana division, Itzik Mizrahi, would hand his wages over in cash, all of it under the table. No taxes were deducted and no social-welfare benefits paid.

Two months ago, after three years on the job, he says Mizrahi decided that he was unreliable and fired him on the spot, without severance pay. Fukhah says he now he sits at home, weighing his next move.

The Jordan Valley banana plantation where Jamal Fukhah worked, for little pay. Photo by Eyal Toueg

The kibbutz disputes this account. “The facts as provided are a totally distorted and contradict the actual facts with the person in question,” the kibbutz said. “ However, due to the right to privacy, we are prevented from responding to the allegations. Every worker employed by us directly is employed in accordance with the law.”

Absence of proof

If he decides to sue, Fukhah will have to prove how much he was paid, but he says he never received a pay stub. And based on the experience of others, he says the case would probably result in a settlement that wouldn’t compensate him fully for his years of work.

It certainly wouldn’t compensate him fully for his period of unemployment. And he would also have to pay a lawyer.

Sill, Fukhah isn’t angry about the conditions he worked under at the banana grove. On the contrary, he would relish being rehired there. “I need to feed my children,” he said. “I need the work.”

As a reporter stood with Fukhah at the grove, Mizrahi arrived and asked us to leave the place immediately.

The number of allegations of Palestinian agricultural laborers working under harsh conditions has been increasing. Dror Etkes, an opponent of Israel’s West Bank settlement policy, calls the situation “a tragic constellation.”

The dynamic, he says, includes greed on the part of the farmers and an Israeli government that doesn’t care that workers are being exploited against the law. Etkes also calls the situation “exploitative colonialism in the classic sense of the word.”

Less pay than for foreign workers

Agriculture is a key source of income in the Jordan Valley. Farming has expanded, and with it the demand for Palestinian laborers.

In 2012, some 4,200 local Palestinians were issued work permits to work in agriculture, according to the Israel Defense Forces’ Civil Administration. But the actual number of Palestinian agricultural workers is probably double that. There are hardly any foreign laborers in the region; from Thailand, for example. Palestinians are willing to work for less than imported laborers.

In the so-called "Givat Ze’ev case," Israel’s High Court of Justice ruled that Israeli labor laws apply to Israeli employers throughout the West Bank. One could therefore argue that Palestinians are entitled to the same minimum wage (23.10 shekels an hour) and social-welfare benefits as Israeli workers.

But in practice, enforcement of the law is lax. There is also no consensus over whether enforcement responsibility is in the hands of the Civil Administration or the Economy Ministry.

The West Bank has not been annexed by Israel, and day-to-day authority in areas under Israeli control is in the hands of the army.

'We don't know'

The Civil Administration responded to Haaretz in a special statement; it said that under a military order, enforcement of labor laws in Israeli communities in the West Bank is the responsibility of the same officials as in Israel proper.

According to the Jordan Valley Regional Council, the municipal authority in the area, “To the best of our knowledge, Jordan Valley farmers employ workers in accordance with the law. Since they are private employers, we do not have any data.”

The Economy Ministry also responded. “The ministry is aware of the situation and as a result has for months, in cooperation with the Justice Ministry and the Civil Administration ... been working on amending defense legislation applying in the area. The goal is to apply [Israeli] labor laws ... to Israeli employers in this area as well,” the ministry said.

“The High Court of Justice’s ruling in the Givat Ze’ev case applied on the level of private international law alone, giving workers the possibility to file a suit against an employer. But the government cannot acquire enforcement powers regarding laws that have not been applied to the area through military orders.”

The ministry acknowledged, however, that it has the authority in the West Bank to address Israeli employers’ violations of the minimum wage. It can also enforce legislation on foreign workers and labor laws protecting women. The ministry said it would deal with any information it received involving violations of these laws.

Plenty of pesticides

Stories are piling up of exploitation of Palestinian agricultural laborers in the Jordan Valley in the West Bank. The case of 24-year-old Muhib Dararma of Ein al-Hilweh is a good example.

Dararma began working for Israeli farmers when he was 15 — not a problem because many young workers don’t get asked their ages and don’t receive work permits from the Civil Administration. Dararma worked for five years with dozens of other laborers in a moshav cooperative community in the northern Jordan Valley.

He earned 70 shekels a day, 10 shekels of which he had to pay for transportation to and from the job. He worked from 6 A.M. to 2 P.M., although when there was a lot of work, he sometimes stayed until 9 or 10 P.M. for which he says he still received 10 shekels an hour.

Even though Israel’s monthly minimum wage for employment up to 43 hours per week is 4,300 shekels, Dararma says he was paid about 2,000 shekels —in cash.

The spices he and his colleagues worked with were full of pesticides that irritated his skin. He says he couldn’t continue and was dismissed on the spot without severance pay. Dararma sought compensation; through a lawyer he demanded 60,000 shekels, including damages for the year after his dismissal when he says he still could not work. His former employer agreed to pay him 5,000 shekels.

Technically, many farmers in the area are not the laborers’ direct employers. Instead, the provider of transportation employs them and parcels them out among the farms. As the middleman, he also gets a cut of their pay.

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