Exploiting Palestinian labour on Israeli settlements

Arab workers on a settlement. No photo credit given.

Living with shame: The dilemmas facing Palestinian workers in the settlements

Employing the enemy: The story of Palestinian labourers on Israeli Settlements by Matthew Vickery (Zed Books, 2017)

Review by David Sperlinger
December 2017

This short but disturbing book explores the apparently puzzling contradiction that many of the Israeli settlements on the West Bank rely on employing large numbers of Palestinians for their farms, industries and even for their construction.

The book is divided into two sections. The first, which is particularly powerful, focuses mainly on the stories of individual Palestinians and shows the enormous pressures (social, financial and psychological) that employment in the settlements creates for them. If you want to understand something of the day-to-day experience of the Occupation on the lives of ordinary Palestinians, then this book provides a good place to start.

The second part of the book has a wider aim and tries to understand the employment of Palestinians in the settlements in the broader context of Israeli policies towards the Palestinians generally and of the specific practices of the Occupation on the everyday lives of the Palestinians.

Some of the basic facts that Vickery describes in the first part of the book are shocking in themselves, even without the added layer provided by the individual stories. For example, it is estimated that 20,000 – 30.000 Palestinians are legally employed in the settlements, of whom it is (conservatively) estimated that 80% are paid less than the minimum wage stipulated by Israeli laws. (They are, in theory, covered by those laws, as confirmed in a High Court of Justice ruling in 2007, which the Israeli government had strongly disputed.)

In addition, many thousands of workers are working without a permit and are almost always paid even less than those with a permit. These “illegal” workers must also avoid checkpoints on their way to work, resulting for many in long and hazardous journeys – facing the risk of being shot or arrested if caught by soldiers. Even for those workers with a permit the journey to work can be demanding, with long queues outside the settlement and frequent humiliating treatment and searches.

One of the most disturbing chapters in the book describes the situation of the hundreds of children (illegally) employed in the settlements, some as young as 11.  Vickery talks to one 14-year old, Zacharia, who says:

Last month the tractor drove over my foot. (…) My father had to take me to hospital, the farmer didn’t care. He just told me I can phone my father. (…) My father had to pay all the hospital fees. (…) The settler doesn’t care. (…) We have no rights, no insurance. To be honest the work affects me, it’s hard, I don’t like it, it makes me depressed. But I have nothing else, it’s the only place I can work, and my family need me to help out.

This vignette captures many of the common threads in the stories in this book: the ways in which the settler employers evade the employment laws that should apply to the Palestinian workers (in terms of low pay, the lack of adequate health and safety arrangements, the absence of sickness payments or compensation for injuries, the absence of proper contracts, etc.); the callous inhumanity with which the workers are treated; the sense for the Palestinians that they are trapped and have no choice but to work on the Settlements, which they hate and which causes them a sense of shame for supporting the Occupation.

11% of settlement workers work on land stolen from their families

The shame that many Palestinian workers feel is often intensified both by the fact that they are working on land that their families or those they know used to own (it is estimated that 11% of settlement workers work on land stolen from their families) and also by the hostility that they face from other people in their villages.  Vickery provides a vivid picture of the particularly fierce anger directed at those workers who are involved in the physical building of the settlements.

 In the second part of his book, Vickery tries to understand how this situation is underpinned by the constraints imposed by the Occupation. He identifies some of the key forces that have placed the Palestinian workers in this impossible dilemma – namely that the only possibility of earning any sort of income is by working for organizations that oppress their communities and are directly involved in depriving them of other opportunities to work.

These forces include: the way that the Israeli government has systematically stifled the Palestinian economy in the West Bank; the absence of government enforcement of labour laws; the lack of freedom of movement, which severely restricts the area in which it is realistic for Palestinians to look for work; and the confiscation of most of the agricultural land on which the villages formerly relied for employment and income.

All this means that there are almost no other employment opportunities available apart from the settlements. As Vickery emphasizes, this situation is one that has purposely been created by Israeli government policy.  The end result is that there are very large numbers of unemployed people and it, thus, becomes very easy for the settlement employers to keep wages low and to dismiss anyone seen as difficult or who tries to stand up for their rights (e.g. protesting about conditions being unsafe). As Vickery summarises it:

 The settlements and settlement businesses don’t just have access to a large pool of non-citizen and easily exploitable workers, but that pool is geographically concentrated near to them and limited in employment options due to freedom of movement restrictions and the purposeful stifling of Palestinian development and economy by Israel. (…) Many Palestinian workers in rural communities situated near the settlements depend solely on settlement work. If they are fired (…) there are very few other job options available to them.

 Vickery generally writes clearly and movingly about the lives and conflicts of the people that he met (although, on occasions, his very lengthy sentences can be a bit hard to follow).  His analysis is generally compelling about the factors that have created and that perpetuate this situation, although a chapter developing Marx’s concept of a ‘reserve army of labour’ did not seem to add greatly to the argument. He also makes a strong case that the work of Palestinians in the settlements falls under the International Labour Organisation’s definition of “forced labour”.

This is not an easy book to read, as it draws such a clear and concrete picture of the injustices that are being suffered by the Palestinian workers and of the direct and premeditated role played by the Israeli government in creating this situation. But the book also makes obvious the clarity with which many Palestinians understand the situation in which they are placed, the limits of their choices and their determination, some day, to get these injustices righted.

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David Sperlinger is a JJP/JfJfP signatory and director of JJP’s rich resource, the Books page

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