Palestinian Workers Forced to Sleep in Trash-sorting Plant Because Employers Feared Coronavirus Lockdown

Workers at Jerusalem plant say they slept in inadequate conditions which violate hygiene standards, and believe management is trying to break up their efforts to organize

Nir Hasson
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A trash-sorting plant in Israel.
A trash-sorting plant in Israel. Credit: Olivier Fitoussi
Nir Hasson

A plant that recycles waste for the city of Jerusalem forced its Palestinian employees to remain at the facility for four days last week, out of fear of the possible closure of the checkpoint through which they traveled between Israel and the West Bank. The plant did not have suitable arrangements for overnight stays, and the conditions described by the workers violated Health Ministry guidelines.

Furthermore, workers said management acted in hopes of breaking up its nascent union. On Monday afternoon, after an inquiry by Haaretz, the company withdrew its order and the workers were permitted to return to their homes.

GreenNet operates a large facility in the Atarot industrial zone, in the north of the capital. It sorts all of the waste collected by the city and has 120 employees.

Last Tuesday the company called an employee meeting, and the managers told them that every work shift would now be split into two groups. The larger group, comprising 20 employees, was to remain in the plant after their shift ended. The smaller group, with 14 workers, would be allowed to go home after their shift, but if the Qalandiyah checkpoint was closed due to the coronavirus lockdown, they would go on unpaid leave.

Last week, more than 60 employees remained in the plant after their shifts. The company arranged for them to sleep in two large rooms, giving them mattresses that were placed on the floor. The closest toilets and showers were around 70 meters away, in the facility’s main building. The pungent odors of the waste sorting facility are inescapable, and the workers reported very uncomfortable conditions. Over the course of the weekend there were times when all of the employees were crowded together into the makeshift dormitories, with dozens of people in each room.

“It’s a simple place, rigged with sheetrock walls and with electricity, for the bathroom you have to go outside and cross the road, same for the showers. The distance between the mattresses was a meter, a meter and a half,” one worker said.

These conditions violate several provisions of the Health Ministry’s regulations for putting up Palestinian workers overnight. These specify a maximum of four people per room, with at least 2 meters between beds. There must be a separate bathroom with a shower for every six people, and a washing machine and cleaning materials must also be provided.

Haaretz contacted Offer Bogin, the CEO of GreenNet Recycling and Waste Treatment, Monday afternoon. Shortly after that, the workers were summoned to a meeting and told that they no longer had to stay at the facility overnight.

The workers say the company acted not only out of fear that the checkpoint might be shut, but also in the hope of blocking the nascent union at the plant.

A few months ago, the workers began to organize under the Ma’an Workers Advice Center, a civil society organization whose activities include operating as a trade union for nonunionized workers, and they started labor negotiations with management. Ma’an and employees say that management tried to obstruct the work of the union by initiating dismissal procedures against a few of the workers who were involved in organizing.

“GreenNet presents itself as a modern, innovative waste recycling facility. But when it comes to employees it behaves as if the era of slavery hasn’t ended,” says Asaf Adiv, the director of Ma’an. He said that in their negotiations with management, Ma’an and the new shop committee proposed “basic demands such as reimbursement for travel, additional wages for skilled workers, for seniority and for night shifts. Now it turns out that management wants to break the attempts to organize.".

In a written response, GreenNet said the allegations presented in this article are incorrect, and that the company is restructuring legally and for legitimate reasons, and respects the rights of its workers.

"GreenNet decided to allow its workers to stay at the factory at no additional cost, so they could continue providing for their families. The living conditions were good and in compliance with all regulations, and the company incurred all the costs. As of now, there is no fear that the Palestinian Authority will prevent workers from entering Israel and all the workers returned to their homes," the company responded.

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