Palestinian children forced to do dangerous jobs on settler farms, says Human Rights Watch

Around 1,000 Palestinian children are being exploited on farms operated by Israeli settlers in the occupied West Bank, according to a new report by Human Rights Watch (HRW).

These children are forced to carry heavy weights and spray pesticides without proper protection. They receive about half the legal minimum wage.

The children have little or no option to accept jobs on settler farms in order to help their families to survive. Israel’s policies have driven many Palestinian families into poverty.

In some cases, the settler farms have been built on land stolen from the children’s own villages.

All of Israel’s settlements in the occupied West Bank are illegal under the Fourth Geneva Convention. Child labor, meanwhile, violates rights enshrined in a number of international agreements.

Although the US and the European Union nominally support international law, they have placed no restrictions on the importation of crops grown on Israeli settlements with the aid of child labor.

HRW interviewed 38 Palestinian children and twelve adults who worked on settler farms in the Jordan Valley.

While 15 is the minimum age of employment in Israel, many children began working at 13 or 14. Even younger children work part-time. Israeli employers use Palestinian middlemen to evade responsibilities relating to work permits and the issuing of pay slips. The use of middlemen to hire workers and take care of their inadequate remuneration leaves workers with no redress to challenge their conditions of employment in court.

Some children told HRW how they were pressured to work without breaks. A 15-year-old who dropped out of school said that supervisors were always yelling “work faster, you are too slow.” The child added that workers were not allowed to sit down while picking peppers or grapes.

The Palestinian children interviewed by HRW earn around 10 shekels ($2.70) per hour which is about two thirds of the legal minimum wage. Middlemen deducted the equivalent of two hours’ pay from the daily wages as fees for transport and other expenses.

Dangerous chemicals

The majority of the interviewees told HRW that they sprayed crops with chemicals up to twice per week. Only two of them had access to masks, eye protection and gloves.

Minors who had to spray crops reported they suffered from dizziness, nausea, eye irritations and skin rashes. Even the children who did not spray pesticides mentioned ill-effects from exposure.

A 14-year-old boy said that other workers sometimes “spray pesticides on the peppers while I’m picking them. We get gloves to wear but not a mask.”

Pesticides are widely used on settler farms. Some pesticides used in the Jordan Valley are neurotoxins which can damage nerve tissue, according to HRW.

Among the pesticides used on grapes is one known as Alzodef. It is prohibited in the EU because of health risks.

A 16-year old Palestinian boy working in a greenhouse had to spray chemicals on crops two full days per week while carrying the chemicals in a 30 liter container on his back.

The boy said that he used the insecticide Decathlon and the herbicide Basta. HRW says that the measures taken to protect children do not meet standards set by the US Environmental Protection Agency (EPA). The EPA requires that after spraying crops with Decathlon in a greenhouse, workers should not enter the area without special protective equipment for twelve hours.

Labels on Basta containers state that while using the product one should wear cotton overalls buttoned to the neck and wrist, a washable hat, elbow-length protective gloves and a face shield or goggles.

Forced to lift heavy weights

The work on farms includes the lifting of heavy weights. For example, boxes with peppers can weigh about 20 kilos.

A 13-year-old boy told Human Rights Watch that he cuts peppers, puts them in boxes and then has to move them. The boxes are heavy and make his arms and back hurt. “At first I dragged the box of peppers but then the supervisor told me I had to carry it,” the boy said.

Eighteen-year-old Yusef said he suffered from persistent backache due to carrying a heavy container on his back. And 15-year-old Saleh said his shoulders were numb from carrying a 15 liter tank on his back when spraying pesticides. He sprays for half an hour each time, then refills the tank. “I need to do this fifteen times before I’m done, on the days I’m spraying,” he said.

Israel’s regulations on youth employment prohibit children under eighteen from doing jobs that require lifting objects that weigh more than 12.5 kilograms for boys, and 8 kilograms for girls.

Palestinian minors working on settlement farms also have to perform dangerous tasks.

A 15-year-old boy had to climb a ladder to a height of two to three meters to prune date palms and pick dates. “The date trees have a lot of spikes, and once I cut myself and couldn’t work for a month,” he told HRW. He did not receive any compensation “because if you don’t work, you aren’t paid. If I go to the doctor, I pay for it myself.”

A 13-year-old cut himself while helping his mother pick onions in Niran settlement. “We use retractable razor blades. They just told me to keep on working,” he said.

Another Palestinian minor reported that after he cut himself, his friends had to take him to the hospital. He had to pay the costs himself.

Israeli exporters mix settlement products with products that originate inside present-day Israel in shipments to the EU, according HRW.

All the major Palestinian agricultural organizations have called for action to end trade with illegal Israeli settlements and Israeli food exporters. That call should be heeded by businesses, governments and ordinary people around the world.

Correction: an earlier version of this article stated that Palestinian children working on Israeli settlement farms receive one-third of the legal minimum wage. This has been corrected to say they receive two-thirds of that wage.


Adri Nieuwhof

Adri Nieuwhof's picture

Adri Nieuwhof is a human rights advocate based in the Netherlands and former anti-apartheid activist at the Holland Committee on Southern Africa. Twitter: @steketeh