The entrance to the industrial area called, with no little irony, Nitzanei Shalom – Buds of Peace – reminds the visitor of a prison more than it does a place of work. Atop the gray concrete wall that surrounds it are posts holding up barbed wire, and opposite the green steel gate sit huge concrete barriers.
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The Palestinians who work in the area enter a separate gate, for them only, under the watchful eyes of a Jewish security guard who monitors them as they take a narrow, winding path to the entrance. Journalists are, of course, barred.
There’s no sign of peace in this dreary place, but then again the Palestinians employed in Nitzanei Shalom, most of whom come from the West Bank city of Tul Karm, aren’t looking for peace, or joy, but for work – and that, at least, is what they get.
The industrial zone was set up in 1995 adjacent to Route 6, the north-south highway that in this stretch runs just west of the Green Line, and the separation barrier between Israel and the West Bank. The idea, launched in the heyday of the Oslo peace process, was to create a win-win situation – a place where Israelis could build factories and Palestinians could find employment.
Today some 13 factories operate in Nitzanei Shalom, employing some 600 Palestinians. But the area has long been documented as a source of air pollution and industrial accidents. During the second intifada it was torched and two terror attacks occurred there.
The zone was subsequently rebuilt and has since been quiet. But today it operates in a labor twilight zone: It is run according to Israeli standards, with one glaring exception – Palestinian workers are subject to the Jordanian labor law that was in force in the areas until 1967.
The legal fiction cuts employers’ labor costs. For instance, under Jordanian law there is no requirement to set aside money for pensions, provide for paid sick days after the third day absent, or medical costs.
Jordanian law requires employers to give 14 days of vacation and up to another seven holiday days off. Unlike Israeli labor law, Jordanian rules don’t award more vacation to workers with more years on the job. Most importantly, severance pay under Jordanian law is minimal.
“Jordanian law is paradise for the Israeli employers,” says Assaf Adiv, director of WAC Maan, which advocates for Palestinian laborers. “How can anyone say this area isn’t Israeli when everything in it is Israeli except for the labor laws?”
That’s not an easy question to answer. Tul Karm is in Area A, meaning under full Palestinian control, but the main entrance to Nitzanei Shalom is inside Israel. The factories are under Israeli security control and pay Israeli taxes.
The one exception to Jordanian labor law is the minimum wage, which throughout the West Bank is based on the Israeli standard, so that even in the twilight zone of Nitzanei Shalom, most Palestinian earn that or something close to it.
But there are exceptions. A 2004 labor agreement at the Tal-El waste-recycling plant, which today employs 100 Palestinians, called for wages of 85 shekels (just over $22) a day, plus another 75 shekel a month for health insurance, at a time when the minimum wage was 3,355 shekels a month. The contract, which was obtained by TheMarker, was written in Hebrew.
At the Yamit Filtration & Water Treatment plant, workers struck for higher wages eight years ago. The result: Most say they are getting 160 shekels for an eight- or nine-hour day, even though the Israeli minimum wage is 25 shekels as hour.
Israeli workers in the same plants are employed under Israeli labor law. “I worked alongside Jews and they get one thing and I get another,” says Ahmad Hamdan Sheib, who worked at Yamit.
Along with two other Yamit employees, Abdul Hamid Yehieh and Mujahid Harsha, petitioned a labor court five years ago to get back wages they said were due them. For their troubles they were fired, getting little or no severance pay, and worse still, three years later the court ruled that Nitzanei Shalom was in fact not Israeli.
Yehieh and Harsha were ordered to cover the company’s 20,000 shekels in court costs.
Maan is helping the men appeal to the National Labor Court, and a decision is expected next month after Attorney General Yehuda Weinstein offers an opinion about the industrial zone’s legal status. “The court erred, we believe, and we hope that the national court will correct that,” says Adiv. “We’re talking about an absurd situation where weaker workers are being exploited.”
Tul Karm’s 65,000 residents are poor even by West Bank standards, with monthly wages inside the city averaging 1,000 shekels or less. There are few jobs in the city and not many residents are permitted to cross the Green Line to work in Israel.
It seems employers are working to ensure that the twilight status of Nitzanei Shalom remains in force. Workers at Yamit say that about six weeks ago they were asked to sign a new document saying they agreed to work under Jordanian law. Tal-El has done the same.
Yamit defended its practice, noting that not only workers but managers at the plant are Palestinian, and that labor relations are “excellent.”
“All employees, without exemption, get wages above the minimum and even a lot higher,” the company said in a statement. “Workers are employed under a collective agreement they agreed to after negotiations that says the relevant law is Jordanian. In practice, workers work under a system that integrates Jordanian laws and army directives, which imposes some Israeli legislation.”
Yamit said Jordanian law was not always inferior to Israeli law, noting for instance that workers are entitled to severance pay after just six months, and can demand the money after 15 years even if they continue to work. Tal-El declined repeated requests for comment.