No limits for settlement employers
Who Profits’ Position Paper
Israeli and international companies that face criticism owing to their activities in the occupied West Bank often attempt to legitimize their businesses in settlements by claiming that they provide labor to Palestinian workers. These claims are blatant attempts to distract public attention from the Israeli occupation and the daily hardships suffered by Palestinians, who are compelled to seek their livelihood in Israeli industries, usually in settlements.
In the course of our research efforts, we frequently encounter this claim; we also witness the reality that undermines it.
Working Conditions in the Settlements
In 2011, 26,831 Palestinians worked in Israeli settlements in the West Bank with work permits. 10,000 more Palestinians worked in settlements without permits, most of them in the Jordan Valley during the olive harvest and date picking season, including children aged 12 and above. 93% of Palestinian workers in settlements have no union or committee to represent them. The vast majority, including experienced and skilled workers, earn less than the Israeli minimum wage, many of them earning less than half the minimum wage. Their wages are often withheld, their social rights are denied and they are exposed to danger in the workplace.
In order to work in settlements, Palestinians must obtain work permits from the Israeli Civil Administration, which also entails the approval of the Israeli internal security service (the Shin Bet). This permit can be annulled at any time, especially when workers demand their rights or try to unionize, or if they (or one of their family members) engage in any kind of political activity. This situation exposes Palestinian workers to extortion by the Israeli internal security service. Other gross violations of labor rights in the West Bank are also possible because the Israeli labor regulations, which apply to these businesses, are rarely enforced in the Occupied Territories, and the workers cannot demand these rights for fear of losing their permits. Furthermore, Israeli employers frequently hire workers through Palestinian labor contractors, which render the workers more vulnerable to rights violations.
The Settlement Industry and Sweatshops – Speaking in the Name of the Workers
A business that operates illegitimately cannot demand legitimacy on behalf of the workers and at their expense. The case of sweatshops is a useful example for illegitimate corporate activity that cannot be justified by providing work for those in need. As is the case with settlement companies, sweatshop operators manufacture their products in low-wage societies, seeking lower production costs.
Israeli employers of Palestinians in settlements have a clear economic interest in maintaining the occupation of Palestinian land and the exploitation of resources. Companies establish factories in the occupied West Bank mainly in order to enjoy the economic benefits provided by the Israeli government, as well as to have access to cheap Palestinian labor and the indirect benefits of operating in industrial zones with low safety and environmental standards and with very lax monitoring and enforcement.
Just like in the occupied Palestinian territories, sweatshop operators claim that they improve the immediate conditions for workers in third world countries. However, these claims were not accepted by international associations such as the United Nations, human rights organizations and trade unions, which held major companies – including The Walt Disney Company, Nike and Wall Mart – accountable for their actions.
The Position of Palestinian Workers regarding the Settlement Industry
Considering the harsh economic situation in the occupied Palestinian territories, working in settlements may seem like a reasonable or at least bearable option to some Palestinian workers. Yet, according to a study conducted by Dr. Majid Sbeih from Al-Quds University for the Democracy and Workers’ Rights Center in Palestine, 82% of Palestinian workers have the desire and willingness to leave their jobs in the settlements, provided that a suitable alternative is available. However, suitable alternatives will not be found as long as the Palestinian economy is under occupation.
Settlement companies are responsible for their conduct and should be held accountable. These employers cannot claim to represent the interests and the position of Palestinian workers in any way. In fact, all of the Palestinian trade unions and labor unions and almost all Palestinian civil society organizations, including political parties, support the Palestinian call for boycott, divestment and sanctions (BDS) as articulated by the BDS National Committee (BNC).
No Free Choice: The Palestinian Market after 45 Years of Occupation
The political reality of the occupation does not allow Palestinian workers to make a free and informed choice regarding their livelihoods. Most Palestinians are compelled to work in settlements, since their economy is in ruins after 45 years of Israeli military occupation. Israeli authorities publicly admitted their oppressive policy regarding the Palestinian market. After the First Intifada, Israeli Defense Minister Moshe Arens appointed a committee charged with ”examining means to develop the economy of the Gaza Strip”. The Sadan Committee, as it was called, articulated one of the most revealing statements about Israel’s policy towards the Palestinian economy:
No priority was given to the promotion of local entrepreneurship and the business sector in the Gaza Strip. Moreover, the authorities discouraged such initiatives whenever they threatened to compete in the Israeli market with existing Israeli firms. International financial institutions, including the World Bank, described the Palestinian economy as unsustainable. In a report published on September 2012, the World Bank stated that the Palestinian economy’s heavy reliance on foreign aid makes its recent growth unsustainable. It further noted that Israeli restrictions remain the greatest impediment to investing in Palestine, creating high uncertainty and risk. The World Bank’s analysis illustrates how the current system of restrictions, both physical and administrative, hinders or prevents Palestinian private investment.
The document that manifested the structural tourniquets imposed on the Palestinian economy is the Paris Protocol – the economic annex to the Oslo Accords. The Paris Protocol places Israel and the occupied Palestinian territories under a joint taxation envelope, the same currency (New Israeli Shekel), and imposes severe restrictions on manufacturing, exporting and importing goods to and from the Occupied Territories. This trade agreement does not truly promote free trade, but instead seeks to protect Israeli and multinational corporations from competition by local industries. Moreover, this situation blocks the development of an independent Palestinian economy and keeps it as a captive market for Israeli and international companies. The Palestinians that cannot work in Israel or the settlements are therefore deprived of earning their livelihood in the Palestinian market.
In the second quarter of 2012, the unemployment rates in the West Bank were 17.1% and 28.4% in Gaza. Palestinian workers lost their land and livelihood to the Israeli occupation. 11% of Palestinian workers in settlements work on confiscated lands originally owned by their families or one of their relatives. Providing Palestinians with jobs on their own stolen land is another humiliating insult that they are forced to bear in order to provide for their families. The settlement industry’s revenues are a direct result of shameless exploitation of Palestinian land, labor and resources. The industry’s existence on occupied land enables, deepens and perpetuates the Israeli occupation.