Palestinian women settlement workers’ plight

Salwa Alinat, a representative of Kav LaOved, speaks with two women workers. (Sarah Irving)

Umm Raed’s sick husband hasn’t worked in more than 20 years. Her own family can’t, or won’t, help support her and her seven children. So her job in the Royalife factory in the Barkan industrial zone, built on illegally confiscated Palestinian land in the Salfit governorate in the Israeli-occupied West Bank, was the household’s main source of income.

But since autumn 2008, Umm Raed and a number of other women from her village have been out of a job. Sick of low pay, dangerous conditions and bullying treatment, in the summer workers at the factory took action. Supported by the Israeli labor rights organization Kav LaOved, they first complained to the factory management and then called for a strike. The striking workers were fired, reinstated under a court order, and then fired again.

Sewing bed linens for export to the US, Turkey and European countries including Germany and Spain, the women described working conditions reminiscent of the horror stories that come from sweatshops in China or maquilas on the US-Mexican border.

“We were paid only six or eight [$1.50 or $2] shekels an hour while men got nine or 12 shekels [$2.25 or $3],” explained Umm Raed as we sat drinking coffee in her friend Kalila’s house. The Israeli minimum wage is 20 shekels per hour, three times that being paid to the women I talked to.

“We get no vacations, no sick pay, not even pay slips. Once when Umm Ahmad made a mistake, the manager made her stay and fix it without paying her for the time. There is no air conditioning or heating in the factory, so it’s hot in summer and very cold in winter and animals get in through the open windows — I once found a mouse in the material. And the managers are always screaming and shouting at us, trying to pressure us to work harder.”

The women reported working from 6:30am to 5pm, sometimes for seven days a week when large orders need to be filled. And the work continues under unsafe conditions.

“There are often accidents because we are cutting fabric,” described Umm Raed. “There is no protection from the machines and no proper safety equipment.”

One young woman suffered a broken leg in 2006 after a roll of nylon she was helping to carry was dropped by a factory manager. She was, according to Umm Raed and her friends, sent to a hospital in Salfit in a private car and no ambulance was called. Despite being unable to work the factory management failed to pay any medical bills for her and threatened her family if they complained.

After four months, said Umm Raed, the woman was given 3,000 shekels ($700) on the condition that she signed papers saying that all her legal rights had been respected.

Royalife’s counter-claims

In a September 2008 letter sent to the Business and Human Rights Resource Centre, a London-based non-governmental organization, Royalife claimed that:

“The worker’s payment is higher than the one in the West Bank or in the whole region … While Western Europe and the United States moved the industry to countries like Pakistan, India, China etc., with much lower labor costs, we tried to keep the textile industry in our region, enabling income to the people who live in the area. Regarding the plant, all complaints are not correct. The plant is a very high standard sewing unit which has top work conditions. The unit was authorized by leading international institutions.”

The letter doesn’t, however, state which “leading international institutions” have signed off on conditions in the plant, said Salwa Alinat of Kav LaOved, adding that claims from Israeli settlement factories that they are paying above the norm for the West Bank are “irrelevant.”

An Israeli high court ruling from 2007 states that Israeli labor law does apply in West Bank settlements. But, said Alinat, “there is no shame and there is no enforcement, so they can do whatever they want. In a recent newspaper report on child labor in the Jordan Valley, the journalists interviewed a lot of employers and all of them said, OK, we break the law, we don’t care, we compare our payment to what is paid in the West Bank.”

According to the sacked women from the Royalife factory, rates of pay in the factory have increased since they were fired, and new workers not involved in suing the company are now paid up to 13 shekels ($4) an hour — still well below the minimum wage. But the women who first stood up to management are still out of work, and Kav LaOved is calling for international demands for Royalife to reinstate them on legal terms.

Israeli industrial zones on Palestinian land

The problem of huge residential settlements such as Ma’ale Adumim, Ariel and Har Homa, confiscating West Bank land, displacing local people and taking up water resources, is well documented. But not all are aware of settlements such as Barkan and Mishor Adumim which are industrial areas, housing factories manufacturing products as diverse as gas masks, bedding, toiletries or sweets, and providing services such as the large-scale laundries which clean the Israeli army’s dirty clothes and bedding. Other economic settlements in the Jordan Valley take up Palestinian land and water to grow fruit and vegetables for export, mainly to Europe, through companies such as Agrexco.

Although clear statistics are rare, between 35,000 and 40,000 Palestinians probably work in such settlements, possibly rising above this during some agricultural seasons. Again seasonally, up to half of these are women. According to Daoud Hamoudi of the Stop The Wall campaign, economic conditions for Palestinian families in the Jordan Valley also mean that the rate of child labor there is increasing. Because the lack of schools in the valley makes education expensive, said Hamoudi, most children selected for school are boys, leaving girls to work in the fields.

Stop The Wall, however, claims one small victory, having succeeded in 2007 in obtaining permission for the first school to be built in the Jordan Valley in 40 years. It will mainly provide education for women and girls.

Jordan Valley

The women who work at Barkan are far from unique in their experiences of exploitation and abuse.

In the village of Jiftlik, in the Jordan Valley, another group of women workers met in the home of one of their number. April is a fairly quiet time for agricultural laborers in the area, but during the date harvest, from September to November, these seven women might sleep only four or five hours a night once they’ve worked shifts in the date-packing factory and then completed their domestic chores.

In common with many other laborers in the agricultural settlements of the Jordan Valley, the women are hazy about who exactly employs them. Although they all work in the Jordan Plains date-packing factory, they are recruited by local middlemen who take a percentage of their wages. That means they tend to blame the middleman who organizes their work, not the Israeli company owner who sets the terms.

Like the women from Barkan Industrial Zone, the Jordan Plains women are only paid a fraction of the Israeli minimum wage. But it’s the conditions that they work under which distress this group most.

“They are shouting and screaming at us all the time,” said Tahirah. “We’re not used to this treatment, before it wasn’t like this. It’s our job to sort dates on a moving conveyor belt. There are a limited number of us to sort everything and they are all the time shouting at us and saying that if we don’t work as they want they could easily replace us.”

“We don’t know what the source of the difference is,” added Tahirah. “Maybe it’s the political situation, but maybe it’s because many of the bosses are Russian and they want to bring Arab Israeli citizens to replace us, or because they want to bring more Russians.”

Salwa Alinat of Kav LaOved has called these women together to see if they want to organize amongst themselves to demand better pay and conditions from their employers. But they’re afraid of losing their jobs, and unconvinced that, despite legal victories at factories in Barkan and Mishor Adumim, their lot can be improved.

Like those in Salfit, the women from Jiftlik report poor health and safety at the processing warehouse.

Abia, sitting with a toddler on her lap, described how she had to stay at home for a week after a box fell on her hip when she was four months pregnant. “The factory didn’t pay me,” she said, “but the Palestinian subcontractor paid me for this week because he was afraid he would pay more if I reported about it.”

With no maternity benefits, women who are pregnant during the date harvest simply have to work in order that their families will survive through the year. Abia worked, she said, right up to the birth of one of her children. “No woman can afford to stay at home when she’s pregnant,” Abia commented. “Our husbands can’t earn enough to support us through the year, and it’s not a big salary but it helps. But if we are lucky we’ll be pregnant in February.”

Of the seven women in the room, three reported chronic back problems and several walk with pronounced limps. They said they have to stand for up to three hours at a time and don’t have suitable chairs to sit on, but they’re not sure if this causes the health problems they experience.

But, they said, other conditions do anger them. Unlike the Russian workers, they don’t have a room to rest in and have to eat under the trees, even in the winter months. They have no access to cold drinking water, and they fear that working near large, noisy packing machines will damage their hearing. There is no first aid equipment and, they said, any women falling sick at work have to wait until the end of the working day to be transported home.

Another female worker, Abla, explained that “we are not respected culturally … it’s a long way to walk to the [bathroom] and we are afraid to be attacked by men, but we’re not allowed to go together, we have to go one at a time to save time.”

On our way back from Jiftlik, we asked if we can stop briefly on the road which passes by the Jordan Plains packing house. Our driver refused, fearful that he will be spotted and reported to the Israeli army authorities running the huge closed military zone that is the Jordan Valley.

Double marginalization

The women who work in Israeli settlements — whether in agriculture or industry — suffer terribly from the criticism their jobs attract. Despite the desperate situations of many, with sick husbands or parents and no other means of support, they face opprobrium from their own society for supporting the settlement system.

“I can’t get a job in the village,” said Dalal in Salfit. There is little paid work available in the area. Moreover, when she and the other women were sacked by Royalife and tried to set up their own sewing operation the Palestinian middleman who supply Royalife with local labor threatened to torch their factory.

“This subcontractor, he is from Hares village and he is well-known as a collaborator with Israeli security,” said Kav LaOved’s Salwa Alinat. “He is taking it very personally that these women are acting against his word, and he is a subcontractor for other factories where workers are also starting to demand their rights, so he is fighting very aggressively.”

Despite the lack of other options and the family’s dependence on their income, Umm Raed says that her daughters are both thinking of leaving their jobs. “Women who work in settlements don’t get married easily,” she reported. Women from Jericho, working at Mishor Adumim settlement, also married late — in some cases too late to be able to have children. But, said Umm Raed, “We need every shekel.”

The names of all workers in this article have been changed for their own protection.

Sarah Irving is a freelance writer from Manchester, UK. She worked with the International Solidarity Movement in the West Bank in 2001-2 and with Olive Co-op, promoting fair trade Palestinian products and solidarity visits, in 2004-6. She now writes full-time on a range of issues, including Palestine.

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