Palestinian farm workers organise

Palestinian farmer

In-depth article about the plight of farm workers in the Jordan Valley and their attempts to organise.

Work at Any Cost: Employment of Palestinian Agricultural Workers in Jordan Valley Settlements

Hundreds of Palestinian workers from Jericho and its surroundings are employed in Israeli settlements in the Jordan Valley. So far, no Palestinian or Israeli body had taken upon itself to provide an accurate account of the numbers of these workers.

Virtually invisible, these workers grow date and herb crops and cultivate fields in the intense heat characteristic of the Jordan Valley, covering hundreds of acres under the jurisdiction of the Jordan Valley Regional Council, stretching from the Dead Sea area to Bet She’an Valley. With no one to assist them, they are neglected and ignored: representatives of the Palestinian Authority, unable to enter the settlements, cannot supervise work there, and the Authority is too weak to make this problem a part of the agenda in Israel or outside of it. On its part, the Israeli supervision system—both the Ministry of Industry, Trade and Labour and the Civil Administration—prefer to ignore the glaring exploitation of Palestinian workers and pretend it does not exist.

Targeted Exploitation
The workers are willing to suffer harsh working conditions in order to bring home bread and escape the circles of poverty and unemployment in the Palestinian Authority’s territories. In the settlements, they earn between 50 to 60 Shekels [approx. $12 to $14] for a 7 hour workday, from 6 a.m. to 1 p.m. For working an extra hour, they are paid an additional 10 Shekels. They receive no payslips, and their employers often delay paying wages. Most workers are frequently transferred from one employer to another, and an employer who wishes to fire a worker can do so very easily. Workers therefore often find it difficult to show proof of their employment if they approach the Israeli Labour Courts.

Workers are not paid for vacation days and are thus compelled to work on their religious holidays and on weekly vacation days without receiving the compensation dictated by the law. In some worksites there are no scheduled lunch breaks and restroom facilities are often absent. Most workers are not supplied with suitable safety equipment, especially when spraying or working in the sun.

The Israeli employers do not bother registering these workers in the Israeli Bureau of Employment; as a consequence, employees are defined as working “off the books”, and thus find it extremely difficult to guarantee any rights for themselves. Palestinian work managers are complicit in this situation, for they provide workers for Israeli employers. As far as the Israeli employers are concerned, these workers are mere numbers, they have no names or rights. Employers would even go as far as to let their Palestinian workers feel that by employing them, they are doing them a great favour for which they should be grateful.

The workers are afraid to complain, lest they lose their source of income. They were silent for years, but some are now becoming increasingly aware of the exploitation they experienced and try to come to terms with it. Despite their fears, they come to the Office of United Labour Unions in Jericho, and receive a basic explanation on their rights according to Israeli law and Jordanian law. This, in turn, increases their awareness of the long-repressed experience of abuse and exploitation, especially in matters concerning their wages. Alarmed at the revelation that the law entitles them for a minimum wage of 18 Shekels per hour, they begin to ask questions: what can be done? How can the Israeli employer be made to pay us by law? If we open our mouth to speak, we risk losing our jobs: dozens of unemployed workers will be willing to replace us. How are we going to support our families?

How Many Workers Are There?
It is difficult to tell the exact number of Palestinian workers employed in the Jordan Valley. An inquiry with the Palestinian Ministry of Labour gives the impression that during the Second Intifada, which started in the year 2000, and especially since last March—after Israel disengaged itself from the Palestinian Authority and all matters pertaining to it—the Ministry has no record of workers employed in Jordan Valley settlements. According to Nasser Awagna, an official in the Palestinian Ministry of Labour in Jericho, “after Israel disengaged itself from the Authority’s institutions, workers began to receive work permits by either applying directly to the Israeli Civil Administration or through their Israeli employers. We no longer process permits here.” Israeli Civil Administration’s labour officer estimates the number of workers at up to 8,000. Local authorities estimate the number of workers at under 2,000.

Few are those who receive permission to work in one of the twenty-one Jordan Valley settlements. Those who do not receive a work permit have to find illegal ways of entry to the settlements. In the past year, it has become fashionable with the Civil Administration for labourers in Jericho to refuse permits “based on security considerations.” This tag is attached to most workers, including those who have no connection to anti-Israel activity, no criminal record, not even a traffic offence. This tag leaves Palestinian agriculture labourers in a state of constant anxiety: if caught by the Israeli security forces, they might lose their source of income. In many cases, workers had to pay fines ranging from 300 to 500 Shekels [approx. $70 to $115] after being caught working without a permit. Their Israeli employers refused to reimburse the payment.

The work permit, which workers receive through the employer’s mediation, becomes a strong bargaining card in the hands of the employer. Workers report of several cases in which, when a worker complained to his employer or attempted, by means of a lawsuit, to realize his legal rights, the employer responded by threatening the worker that unless the lawsuit is revoked, he will see to it that the worker does not receive a work permit. According to workers, more than a handful of employers threatened to falsely accuse workers for theft and bring to their expulsion from the settlements.

The Israeli employer feels free to seek the assistance of the police, the Border Police or the settlement’s security guards as a form of “solution” for the problem that the Palestinian worker creates. Workers, and occasionally Arab work managers as well, report that when a problem arises at work, rather than attempting to solve it the employer often prefers to throw the worker out by threats to call the police.

The work permit gives the Israeli employer much power, a power that he does not hesitate to use for securing the continual exploitation of his employees.

Damage to Body and Soul
In addition to the work permit, work accidents, illness and safety at work are all issues facing Palestinian workers in the Valley. The workers know that in case of a work accident, neither the Israeli employer nor the Palestinian work manager will be willing to assume responsibility. Neither will cover the medical expenses nor pay for illness days. Even worse, most chances are that the injured worker will lose his or her job. Knowing this from experience, many workers prefer to concentrate their efforts on figuring out how to survive a day of work without getting hurt, how to secure their job from one day to the next. Most try to avoid thinking of the possibility of a work accident, even though the chances of it happening are not unlikely. The employer, failing to provide workers with any adequate personal protection equipment, exposes them to harsh and dangerous working conditions.

One of the most painful stories related by the date crops workers is that of their work during the fruit thinning season. According to their testimonies, to perform this work they are forced to spend three to six hours a day sitting at the top of a palm tree. This practice, known in the Valley by the name “Taxi Driver,” was adopted from a method used in the U.S. to exploit Mexican workers: using a crane, the employer lifts the worker to the top of the palm tree and leaves him there to labour for long hours, with no way of getting down. Both private employers and the settlements’ secretariats engage in this practice, which in recent years has become prevalent in many settlements in the Valley.

The workers report that they are compelled to remain seated at the top of the palm tree in a dangerous and uncomfortable position. They take their breakfast there, and with no access to bathroom facilities they must evacuate their bodily waste from thence. When a worker needs to attend the bathroom he must resort to quarrelling with the work manager, alternately shouting and pleading. The workers’ fear of falling is constant: it may hurt not only their bodies, but their income as well.

The date crops workers who managed to persist in this job have suppressed these fears to the extent that some of them insist that the job is neither difficult nor dangerous. Abbed, a 34-year old from the village of Jaftlak, says he has no reason to worry. He began working with date crops when he was fourteen years old, and thinks it perfectly normal to spend long hours on the high tree. The insects, snakes and bees that threaten him regularly practically no longer exist for him, and the strong wind that sways the tree, making other workers scream in fear and beg to be let off, only strengthens him. “This is why I survived and persisted in this job for years, while others quit it on the very first day,” he concludes.

In addition to the mental stress that results from the pressure in work and the fear of losing it, the intensive labour on the palm trees causes many workers to suffer headaches and pain in the back and limbs. This is only a small fraction of the health problems suffered by Palestinian agriculture workers. They are exposed to harsh working conditions, including, among others, spraying with no protective equipment such as masks and gloves. Contrary to what the law requires, they receive no proper instructions from the employer on the use pesticides. According to workers, the most common diseases caused by working with pesticides without adequate protective equipment are eczema, breathing problems and nose sensitivity. Worker also suffered from sunstrokes and, in cases of falling off trees, from bone fractures.

Salim, 23, says: “when I was sixteen, a tractor wagon fell on me. No one covered the medical expenses and I returned to work within a month. Until this day I suffer pain in my legs, back and elbows, especially in the winter season.” Salim adds that “every year in November and December I receive burns to my arms and face as result of using the pesticide Agzidoff. The burns remain for a couple of months before the skin begins to heal.” Sammie (fictitious name) has been working in the settlement Patzael for the past fifteen years, earning 50 Shekels [approx. $12] a day, including travel expenses. Sammie, who works from 6 a.m. to 2 p.m., is one of six permanent workers employed by the business owner year-round. “I work with pesticides twice, sometimes three times a week, with no protective equipment. I have nose and hands sensitivity,” he says.

Fatal Competition
The dire economic hardships in the Occupied Territories, resulting in poverty and unemployment among most Palestinians, have created great demand for employment in the settlements. This demand, in turn, has been exploited by Israeli employers for obtaining cheap labour. It has also generated intense competition among workers, which serves only to weaken them and exacerbate their condition.

A divide-and-conquer policy is a distinctive feature of worker-employer relations in the Jordan Valley. The Palestinian workers come to the settlements from various places: from nearby villages, from the city of Jericho and in recent years from Ramallah, Jenin and Nablus—where the erection of the separation wall made it difficult for Palestinian workers to find employment and drove them to the Jordan Valley in search of jobs. Workers no longer know one another; their sole interest is to keep their jobs as long as possible.

Fierce competition also exists among Palestinian work managers, who function as human resources agents of sorts: they supply workers according to the employer’s demand, drive them to the worksite, and receive commission ranging from 10 to 30 Shekels [approx. $2.5 to $7] a day per worker, depending on the location from which workers are brought. But work managers have no control over working conditions. Most of them have no written employment agreement with the Israeli employer. For the most part, they were able to obtain their position as work managers in virtue of their proficiency in the Hebrew language, for being skilful workers themselves, and for possessing a vehicle for worker transportation. Over the years, these contractors, known among the workers as “mualamin,” have accumulated a great deal of power and created a system of shared interests with the Israeli employers.

From talking with some of the contractors it appears that competition exists especially between contractors from Jericho and those coming from the surroundings of Nablus and Ramallah. In Jericho there are only seven contractors, working with some 300 agricultural workers. In the villages surrounding Nablus, however, there are dozens of contractors; one of them, for instance, recruits some 200 workers alone.

Labourers who work with contractors from Jericho work from 6 a.m. to 2 p.m. for a total of 65 Shekels a day, 10 Shekels of which go to the contractor. Those, on the other hand, who work with contractors from outside Jericho, are paid 45 Shekels per workday, while the contractor receives 25 Shekels per person for transporting workers to and from the worksite. These contractors supply the Israeli demand for children, women and men from outside Jericho who are willing to work at any price. Recently a problem emerged in one of the workplaces: The Israeli employer had decided that he wants to employ women from the Jericho area, and men from Nablus and Ramalla. The employer persisted in his decision despite the objection of the female workers, who claimed such mix-up creates tension between male and female workers; nor did he yield to the contractor’s request to approve the employment of several men from the Jericho area in order to “protect” the Jericho female workers from male workers from outside the city.

The Israeli checkpoints pose another serious obstacle for workers and contractors alike. Sometimes the contractor with his workers would be stopped at a checkpoint on their way to work. The Israeli employer then calls another contractor, knowing this one will be willing to risk the life of his workers driving them through dusty sideroads, and asks him to replace the contractor stopped at the checkpoint. “This is a serious problem. It thwarts any attempt to make the employer assume responsibility for his workers and release them from the checkpoint,” says a veteran contractor.

In May this year Kav LaOved and the Palestinian Geberal Federation of Trade Unions (PGFTU) in Jericho organized a workshop attended by thirty agricultural labourers and contractors employed in the Jordan Valley settlements. Attorney Hashem Massrawa of Kav LaOved told the Palestinian contractors: “you are responsible for the rights of the Palestinian workers no less then the Israeli employers are.”

Kefach, a contractor of female workers, employs 70 agricultural labourers. She drives them to and from work and receives a commission of 10 Shekels a day for each worker. Kefach is also responsible for distributing payslips to her employees. Attorney Massrawa had warned her that workers may file a suit against her in the Palestinian Authority as well as in Labour Courts in Israel: along with the Israeli employer, she too can be legally considered as their employer.

Attorney Massrawa talked with the participants about the ambiguity of the contractor’s status. He explained Palestinian contractors that they must ensure that workers receive the minimum wage as determined by Israeli law. Otherwise, they might be made to pay the difference in case a worker files a complaint against them and against the Israeli employer.

According to Massrawa, the Israeli employer uses the indirect payslip distribution method to hide from workers the fact that he is their employer; this allows him to forsake responsibility for their rights. Accordingly, the Israeli employer refuses to recognize most work accidents, and the workers lose their right to Social Security benefits.

Attorney Massrawa also discussed the Jordanian employment law (which, pending a Supreme Court ruling, is the law governing Palestinian workers in Jewish settlements in all matters except for minimum wage). Besides holidays, workers are entitled by Jordanian law for 12 annual vacation days; the work week is defined as having 48 hours, 9 work hours a day; payment for the weekly rest day is calculated for each worker according to the total number of days he worked each month. Furthermore, the worker is entitled to severance pay and to insurance against work accidents.

Massrawa explained workers that they must prepare for the long run. “What will happen to you in case of illness or work accident,” he asked them. “Has it occurred to you that the employment method will make it difficult for you to obtain compensation?” Massrawa also noted the risks involved in working with pesticides without protective equipment, and that by agreeing to work under such conditions they are ignoring the direct threat to their health. Massrawa urged workers to begin thinking beyond the short-term goal of earning 1,000 Shekels by the end of the month, and to start considering their future as workers.

The Road to Organization
The PGFTU in Jericho sees great importance in organizing the workers. Waal Nadif, the chair of the Jericho PGFTU, says that “the Israeli employer does not recognize the Palestinian unions in the territories. Representatives of Palestinian trade unions are prohibited from entering Israeli worksites. We can’t even move freely in our own territories,” he says.

In Nadif’s opinion, the labour laws that the State of Israel applies to Palestinian workers in the settlements are highly unjust. These laws are based on the 1965 Jordanian regulation no. 2—an outdated and problematic regulation that fails to secure even minimal rights for workers. “Unfortunately, the Israeli law is in agreement with this,” says Nadif. “Along with this problem, a serious dilemma emerges in case that the Israeli law itself is being applied to the Palestinian workers in the settlements. Such application has wide-ranging political implications, since it supposedly constitutes recognition of the settlements as part of Israel rather than occupied Palestinian lands. I can’t come up with a solution for this dilemma off the top of my head, but we have to find a formula that protects worker rights in the settlements while at the same time guarantees their political right in their territories.”

As a consequence of the collaboration with Kav LaOved the PGFTU perceives a new and positive change: Palestinians who work in the settlements come to talk about their difficulties in their work with the Israeli employer, regardless of their suspicion and fear of losing their jobs. “Only recently have we in the Jericho PGFTU begun to understand that the condition of Palestinian workers in the settlements is most difficult, and that we have to work to improve it,” says Nadif.

A Hopeful Note
“Today more than ever we perceive willingness among the workers to unionize,” writes Waal Nadif in an information sheet recently published as an initiative of Kav LaOved and the Jericho PGFTU. Nadif adds that “the workers’ attitude toward the Jericho PGFTU is changing. If initially they came only to receive various services, today they are coming to receive legal and organizational consultation and attend preparation and awareness workshops. It’s a good start. We are aware that the work that lies ahead of us is hard and requires much patience, but we’re on the right track and in the future we shall enjoy its fruits, Inshallah.