Whether our cage is made of iron or gold, it is a cage
Palestinian workers line up at an Israeli checkpoint near Bethlehem. Photo by Najeh Hashlamoun / APA images
By Stephanie Westbrook, Electronic Intifada
April 09, 2013
Whenever calls are made to ban goods from illegal settlements in the West Bank, Israel’s standard response is that sanctions of that nature would have an adverse effect on Palestinian workers.
The argument has been trotted out quite a few times lately as some representatives of the European Union have advocated economic measures against Israel.
Gershon Mesika: settler chairman: EU boycott would hurt Palestinians
In March, Gershon Mesika, chairman of the Samaria Regional Council — a local authority for Israeli settlements — warned that an EU ban on settlement goods would hurt the industrial zones in the occupied West Bank, a primary source of jobs for Palestinians (“EU parliamentarians in whirlwind tour of Samaria,” Israel National News, 13 March).
Later in the month, Yaakov Berg, founder of Psagot Winery, claimed his vineyards in the West Bank “provide good jobs for Palestinians that pay three or four times what they could earn elsewhere” (“Israel’s vineyards: the West Bank’s grapes of wrath,” The Daily Telegraph, 24 March).
And before Barack Obama’s trip to Israel, David Ha’ivri, director of the Shomron Liaison Office and a supporter of Israeli settlements, challenged the American president to visit the West Bank. Obama, he added, should “look into the eyes of Abed,” who has worked for 20 years in a factory in the Barkan industrial zone near the settlement of Ariel, and who, along with other Palestinians, “consider themselves lucky to have secure jobs” and “do not look forward to having all this closed down” (“Obama: come visit Shomron!” The Jerusalem Post, 27 February).
What these supposed defenders of Palestinian workers conveniently fail to mention is that numerous Palestinian organizations launched a call in 2005 for boycott, divestment and sanctions (BDS) against Israel. Significantly, the call is supported by all Palestinian trade unions.
The responsibility for determining how to best achieve their rights and what sacrifices they are willing to make belongs to Palestinians, not those who profit from the Israeli occupation.
Maintaining Palestinian jobs was not exactly a priority for settlers in 2010 when the Palestinian Authority announced a boycott of Israeli settlements. The Yesha Council, an umbrella organization for authorities in the settlements, urged the Israeli government to block all Palestinian imports and exports (“Settlers: PA boycott – economic terror,” Ynet, 18 May 2010). Uri Ariel, the current minister of housing and himself a settler, called on Israelis to fire Palestinian workers (“MK: ‘PA boycotting Israeli goods? Boycott back, fire workers,” Israel National News, 3 March 2010).
The Coalition of Women for Peace — a group of Israeli and Palestinian activists — had encountered this supposed concern for Palestinian welfare in the course of research for its Who Profits from the Occupation? project. So the group decided to respond. Earlier this year, it published a position paper detailing the conditions of Palestinian workers in Israeli settlements (“Palestinian workers in settlements,” January 2013 [PDF]).
The paper stated that in 2011, around 27,000 Palestinians had permits to work in Israeli settlements in the occupied West Bank. In order to obtain or renew work permits, Palestinians depend on the Israeli Civil Administration, which, despite its name, is part of the Israeli military, as well as the Israeli internal security service, the Shin Bet.
While Israeli labor laws also technically apply to settlement businesses, they are rarely enforced in the West Bank. According to a report commissioned by the UN Human Rights Council, “between 2006 and 2010 only four audits were conducted in the 20 industrial zones/settlements operating in the West Bank.”
In addition, work permits, which can be revoked at any time, serve as a not-so-gentle deterrent for workers interested in getting involved in trade unions or other political activity.
The Israeli organization Machsom Watch has documented how the Shin Bet uses blacklisting of Palestinians as an instrument of oppression against Palestinians, as well as a way of creating a pool of potential collaborators (“Invisible prisoners,” April 2012 [PDF]). Palestinians who find themselves blacklisted not only have no hope of obtaining a work permit, or any other type of permit for that matter, but also have no way of learning why they were placed on the list.
“Exposed to danger”
There are also 10,000 Palestinians who work in settlements without permits, especially for seasonal agricultural work, where children as young as 12 are employed. According to the Coalition of Women for Peace, “93 percent of Palestinian workers in settlements have no union or committee to represent them. Their 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.”
The coalition’s report refers to an unpublished study by Dr. Majid Sbeih of Al-Quds University, which states that “11 percent of Palestinian workers in settlements work on confiscated lands originally owned by their families or one of their relatives” and 82 percent “have the desire and willingness to leave their jobs in the settlements, provided that a suitable alternative is available.”
However, after decades of occupation, restrictions on the movement of people and goods, blocks on construction, theft of natural resources, control over imports and exports and policies designed to protect Israeli companies from competition by Palestinian industries, the Palestinian economy is unable to offer alternatives.
No one has trumpeted more the idea of the occupation as beneficial to Palestinians than SodaStream, the Israeli producer of fizzy drink machines sold around the world, whose main manufacturing facilities are in the illegal settlement of Ma’ale Adumim. SodaStream has become a target of the BDS movement, with active campaigns in Europe, North America, Australia and Japan.
As the boycott campaign against SodaStream expanded, the company looked to its Palestinian workers for help in cleaning up it tarnished image. In June 2011, SodaStream declared that 160 out of its total number of employees in Ma’ale Adumim were Palestinians. By February this year, the figure had jumped to 900 Palestinians out of a total workforce of 1,100 (“Boycott Israel push against SodaStream could hurt Palestinian workers,” The Jewish Daily Forward, 10 February).
In December 2012, a very professional 8.5 minute video appeared on YouTube, presenting Sodastream’s settlement factory as a happy island in the occupied West Bank.
The video includes footage of Palestinian workers at the factory, the luxury coach that apparently takes them from their villages to the settlement, the factory “mosque,” and Sodastream chief executive Daniel Birnbaum patting workers on the shoulders and explaining that SodaStream “builds bridges, not walls.”
Responding to the video, the Palestinian Christian organization Kairos Palestine described the vision of reality presented as “cynical at best; at worst, it is criminally misleading.” The letter from Kairos Palestine went on the say “the emphasis on SodaStream’s economic benefits for its workers is, under the circumstances of occupation, absurd and offensive: what Palestinians need is freedom, not fancier oppression. It doesn’t matter if our cage is made of iron or gold: it is a cage” (“Kairos Palestine responds to hasbara film of SodaStream,” 7 March).
In his interviews, Birnbaum has never missed an opportunity to tout the benefits reserved for Palestinian workers in SodaStream’s settlement factory or warn against harm they would suffer due to boycotts. It has never once occurred to him, however, to utter a single word challenging the colonial system that limits Palestinians to looking for work in a factory on Palestinian land stolen through occupation and ethnic cleansing.
Lesson from South Africa
It is interesting to revisit an attempt to obtain rights for the oppressed by means of engaging with corporations when South Africa was under white minority rule.
In 1977, Reverend Leon Sullivan developed a code of ethics for companies operating in South Africa. A religious leader and a member of the board of directors of General Motors, one largest employers of black South Africans that was also complicit with the apartheid regime, Sullivan believed that persuading companies to endorse the code’s six principles represented a gradual approach that would avoid putting black workers at risk. These principles included ending segregation in the workplace, equal pay and training and advancement opportunities for blacks and colored people.
Several large US companies, including Ford, General Motors, IBM and Union Carbide, signed on immediately, with other companies added later bringing the total to more than 130 endorsers. Ronald Reagan, a strong ally of the regime in South Africa, also supported the Sullivan Principles as part of his “constructive engagement” policy.
A public statement published in 1979 and signed by some 60 religious leaders, trade unions, academics and human rights organizations called into question the true effects of Sullivan’s code of ethics. Titled “The Sullivan Principles: No Cure for Apartheid,” the statement argued that the Sullivan Principles had “developed rapidly into a major defense of US business activity in South Africa” and were being used to undermine divestment campaigns.
The signatories of the statement argued that firms tended to endorse the Sullivan Principles “not as a result of genuine change in corporate attitudes but as a public relations effort,” providing “precisely what the companies were looking for: a guaranteed public relations success which promised maximum credit for minimum change.” The reforms proposed by the code, which were voluntary and provided no means for enforcement, were confined to the workplace and raised no objections to the system of apartheid that was the source of injustice in South Africa. “Africans are not struggling and dying to reform apartheid,” the statement added. “They want nothing less than the abolition of the system.”
Ten years later, Sullivan abandoned his principles, disappointed that they had not had the expected impact. Sullivan instead called on companies to withdraw completely from all business activities in South Africa and on the US government to impose sanctions (“Leon Sullivan, 78, dies; fought apartheid,” The New York Times, 26 April 2001).
SodaStream, along with other supporters of oppression, occupation and apartheid, are using Palestinian workers in an attempt to give legitimacy to an unjust system, reinforcing the idea that Palestinians should make do with a job, rather than fight for every right they are due.
Freedom, justice and equality demanded by the Palestinian people will certainly not come from businesses complicit with the same colonial system that denies those same rights, but from its abolition. The Palestinian call for boycott, divestment and sanctions is the best way to ensure that Palestinians, in the words of Desmond Tutu, are not reduced to “picking up crumbs of compassion thrown from the table of someone who considers himself [their] master,” but rather have “the full menu of rights.”
Stephanie Westbrook is a US citizen based in Rome, Italy. Her articles have been published on Common Dreams, Counterpunch, The Electronic Intifada, In These Times and Z Magazine. Follow her on Twitter @stephinrome.
An estimated 30,000 Palestinian laborers work in Israel without permits, in predominantly labor intensives jobs. Pay is poor, social rights are virtually nonexistent, and conditions in the workplace are often hazardous. A group of Palestinian workers tell their story from a construction site in Petah Tikva.
By Alon Aviram, +972
December 07, 2012
“This place is a luxury penthouse” said Faisal, 26, a builder from Hebron, as he looked out across the lit city-scape of Petah Tikva. Industrial waste was strewn across the floor, tools were propped up against walls and dust hung in the air on the tenth floor of the construction site. “ We’ve stayed in so many penthouses, you wouldn’t believe it!” He said grinning.
The shell of a building, in which Faisal stood, is a workplace as well as a temporary home for him and the five other young men in the room. They’ve lived this life on countless construction sites across the country. The lack of a kettle didn’t diminish their ability to be hospitable. A makeshift immersion heater was placed in a bucket, bringing water to the boil. Coffee was served, the men spoke, and a shisha pipe was passed around. There isn’t much else to do in the evenings in this hazardous, claustrophobic and male dominated environment. Similarly to the other estimated 30,000 Palestinian workers without work permits in Israel, these laborers are confined to building sites day and night for fear of being arrested.
“Every two weeks or so the police come and detain us. They take us to the checkpoint and send us back into the West Bank. It’s their way of telling us whose boss. But they know we’ll just make our way back in,” said Faisal. Israeli NGO Kav LaOved reports that when workers are apprehended, they are usually transported back into the West Bank. But workers can also be indicted. Sentences usually include three months in jail and a police preclusion for three years, barring them from entering and working in Israel lawfully. Basem has had numerous run-ins with the police for working without a permit, but he spoke of how in his experience, no contractor had been penalized for employing illegal workers. He said that this was partly as a result of workers not naming their employers out of fear of being blacklisted.
Israeli photographer, Ron Amir, has a long and close relationship with this particular group of workers. He initially met them while documenting the lives of illegal workers for an exhibition, and subsequently became a friend. Ron described how Palestinian construction workers usually find employment through a long chain of middlemen. Workers are initially hired by a subcontractor from their own village, who is then recruited by a series of other contractors within Israel. Ron claimed that this structure is geared towards obscuring the complicity of Israeli firms in employing illegal workers. This in turn diminishes the prospect of the general contractor being held legally accountable. As Kav LaOved reports, the incentive for employing a Palestinian without a work permit is high. The cost of employing a Palestinian worker with a permit is about 70% higher than employing one without a permit (210 versus 124 shekels respectively).
Basem, 25, is from Ramallah, 23 miles away. Yet it takes him at least a day to reach Petah Tikva. “To get here, I have to travel to the south of the West Bank, near Hebron, cross over by foot through the countryside, and then make my way up carefully in a minivan with some other workers to wherever the contractor wants us.” Faisal only lives one hour drive away, but the difficulty of travelling without a work permit means that “I’m only home to see my family for one or two months of the year,” he said.
Israeli labor laws states that every worker in Israel is entitled to the full range of social rights regardless of whether or not they have a permit. Despite this, primary research by NGOs such as Kav LaOved and Gisha suggest that Israeli employers systematically abuse the rights of Palestinian and immigrant workers, particularly those without permits.
Basem didn’t seem phased by the dangers in his line of work. He spoke of a 22 year old Palestinian worker who died this past November after falling off a construction site in Netanya. No charges have as of yet, been lodged against the contractor of the dead worker. Suheib Zayud, 19, fell from a construction site in 2011, he remains in a coma. His contractor denied that he had ever employed Suheib. As a result, the worker’s family received no financial compensation, and have been burdened with all the medical expenses. This case, as well as others before it, suggest that the contractor of the fatally injured worker in Netanya, is unlikely to face legal ramifications.
The work conditions of illegal workers are often substandard, with legally required on-site security and safety conditions systematically neglected. As Kav LaOved reports, in past cases of work-related accidents involving illegal workers, employers have denied any connection to the employee. The lack of a permit and official documentation mean that the employee is unlikely to be able to prove their eligibility for compensation from the National Insurance Institute. A lack of official documentation, and workers commonly receiving cash in hand from subcontractors, makes employees more susceptible to exploitation, and increases the difficulty of proving a violation of rights in labor courts.
At the end of 2011, a total of 27,000 Palestinians were legally working in Israel, predominantly in construction and agriculture. According to a publication issued by the Association of Builders in Israel in 2011, the sector needs 20,000 more workers. Numerous Israeli contractors have reported that they are consistently short of construction workers.
There appears to be a discrepancy between the number of permits issued for Palestinian workers and the demand of Israeli employers’. When questioned, the men in the room in Petah Tikva claimed that they were not eligible for permits because they were too young. In the past, legal work for Palestinians in Israel was readily available. One of the many conditions currently required of Palestinians in order to legally obtain a permit, is that they must be a married father and over the age of 35. Israeli security agencies argue that young men without a family represent a greater potential threat to the state.
Yet somehow, the sophisticated Israeli security complex fails to stop many workers without permits coming into Israel. Tens of thousands of Palestinian laborers currently work illegally in Israel. They live and work in dangerous conditions and are often exploited by their employers. They earn less than their already poorly paid peers with permits, making them a source of cheap and highly profitable labor for Israeli markets. Basem made his intentions clear. “I’m done with this life. As soon as I’ve sent enough money back to my family, and saved a few thousand shekels for myself, I’m going to go back to my village. I’ll get married, and I’ll have some kids.”
(The names in this article have been changed in order to conceal identities)