Exploited and underpaid, Palestinian women are fighting back in the workplace

Subject to below minimum wage jobs, no pay slips, and arbitrary layoffs in Israeli settlements, Palestinian women under occupation are learning more about their rights and are beginning to unionize.

Adla Ayad, a worker at the 'Mevashlim Bishvilech' factory in the industrial zone of the West Bank settlement of Mishor Adumim, seen during a workers solidarity meeting, December 5, 2019. (Activestills.org)
Adla Ayad, a worker at the 'Mevashlim Bishvilech' factory in the industrial zone of the West Bank settlement of Mishor Adumim, seen during a workers solidarity meeting, December 5, 2019. (Activestills.org)

On Wednesday, December 3, 15 of the 20 employees of the “Mevashlim Bishvilech” factory in the industrial zone of Mishor Adumim, an Israeli settlement in the occupied West Bank, went on a two-day strike demanding fair wages and social benefits according to Israeli law, after they said the company’s management cut about NIS 1,000 from their wages in October.

The company also refused to pay for holidays or past debts owed to the employees, they said.

The striking employees, most of whom are Palestinian women who were leading a work strike demanding their employee rights for the first time, were unionized by the labor organization Workers Advice Center (WAC-MAAN) trade union in September.

Initially, management opened negotiations and held two meetings with the trade union and the workers’ representatives, but WAC-MAAN maintains that despite apparent understandings which were achieved, the company — which produces homemade stuffed vegetables — nevertheless unilaterally cut payroll.

For employees like Nawal Arar, 37, and Adla Ayad, 49, both from Ramallah, that was the last straw.

“I leave my home at 5:15 in the morning and get back home at 6:45 in the afternoon,” said Arar, who has worked at the factory for 2.5 years, listing the work infractions they are striking to be changed. “I work 10 hours with only half an hour break. I roll vegetables all day and hunching over like that rolling has hurt my back. The company doesn’t pay for my pension fund and it doesn’t pay for my transportation to work. We aren’t given our Muslim holidays off and we aren’t paid for the holidays. We don’t get vacation pay or paid sick days.”

Exploited and underpaid, Palestinian women are fighting back in the workplace
WAC-MAAN representative Yoav Tamir speaks to Palestinian workers on strike during a solidarity meeting in Almog junction, West Bank, December 5, 2019. (Activestills.org)

Arar has six children and is the sole breadwinner in her family and earns about NIS 3,000 ($865) a month, she said.

“We just want to get our rights which are due us by law,” said Ayad, who has seven children and has been working at the factory for 3.5 years. “If we were Israeli workers he would not treat us like that.”

For years, the employees have been paid based on the number of pots they fill with vegetables, and not according to the hours they work.

Mevashlim Bishvelech CEO Sharon Avital told +972 Magazine in a phone interview that the discrepancy in wages between September and October stemmed from the overtime the employees had worked in September due to the extra work orders during the Jewish holiday season. Per the request of WAC-MAAN they agreed to pay the workers for the Jewish holidays and the extra will be paid this month, she said. Normally they have been paying for the Muslim holiday, she said, but in the upcoming negotiations with WAC-MAAN the workers will decide if they want to be paid for either the Jewish or the Muslim holidays, she added.

“We know that in Mishor Adumim there are companies which still pay the minimum wage according to the Jordanian pay scale and that is awful, but we pay over the (Israeli) minimum page,” Avital said in a phone interview, noting that they hadn’t been able to find an insurance company willing to give the employees a pension fund but they had now found a company and would be implementing a fund for the employees. “That is why we were shocked and surprised by what happened. We are a peace factory. We love our employees and we are like family. Now this has created a tense and unpleasant atmosphere.”

She said they would begin negotiations shortly to finalize the employment conditions.

A wave of unionization

According to COGAT (the unit of the Israeli Defense Ministry charged with administering the military occupation of the Palestinian territories), around 30,000 Palestinians with Israeli-issued permits work in West Bank settlements.

Israeli restrictions, occupation of Palestinian land, and control over Palestinian borders and natural resources splinter the Palestinian economy and cause an increase in unemployment, forcing many Palestinian laborers to seek work in Israel and the settlements. Though the salaries in Israel are higher and provide more disposable income for workers, which is then injected into the Palestinian economy, settlement businesses have been condemned for contributing to Israel’s confiscations of occupied land in violation of international law and for allowing discriminatory abuses of labor rights, as detailed by groups like Human Rights Watch.

Although most workers in industrial areas are men, there are a significant number of Palestinian women who work there, especially in the food and catering sectors. To date, women have not dared claim their rights or challenge the harsh working conditions. Many do not make minimum wage, receive no pay slips, and are subject to arbitrary layoffs.

WAC-MAAN representative Yoav Gal Tamir said this is the first time a group of Palestinian women workers join a workers’ union and demand the opening of collective bargaining negotiations to secure their rights.

The unionization of workers at Mevashlim Bishvilech (“We cook for you” in Hebrew) is part of a wave among Palestinian workers and workers’ associations in the settlement industrial zones over the past six months, noted WAC-MAAN. “This situation indicates that the Palestinians, women and men, have grown tired of the existing situation in which they have been working for decades under harsh conditions, and have begun to defend their rights,” a WAC-MAAN statement said last .

Recently, WAC-MAAN helped unionize almost half of the 250 Palestinian workers of Maya Foods — another company in the Mishor Adumim industrial park. On Thursday, they began negotiations with the managers after the Israeli labor court in November ordered the company to conduct collective bargaining negotiations with WAC-MAAN, and pay NIS 160,000 ($46,175) in damages for obstructing the workers’ right to unionize, after the company made sudden changes in positions and hours and unlawfully dismissed employees who supported the union.

In addition, 50 Palestinian employees of R. S. Marketing and Food Production (also known as Rejwan) in the Atarot industrial zone in Jerusalem joined the WAC- MAAN union last September. At the end of November, they also went on a two-day strike, seeking to negotiate a collective agreement guaranteeing a raise and improved working conditions, which include below minimum wages, little or no compensation for transportation and lack of transparency in registering the hours the workers file, according to the workers.

Mishor Adumim is one of 20 settlement industrial zones in the West Bank including Barkan near Salfit, Shahak near Jenin, Nitzanei Hashalom near Tulkarem, Alei Zahav, Immanuel, Karnei Shomron and Alfei Menashe in the Qalqilya area.

Exploited and underpaid, Palestinian women are fighting back in the workplace
A Palestinian worker at the ‘Mevashlim Bishvilech’ factory in the industrial zone of the West Bank settlement of Mishor Adumim, seen during a workers solidarity meeting, December 5, 2019. (Activestills.org)

According to Kav LaOved, a worker’s rights NGO, there are some 30,000 Palestinians employed in Israeli settlements, many of whom face discrimination in their salary and rights to social benefits by their Israeli employers.

Employers deduct the number of hours and days these employees work, and do not acknowledge overtime hours. As such, the pay stubs note a payment of minimum wage, while, in fact, workers receive much lower compensation, the group said.

There have been cases of employers refusing to provide employees with proper medical care in Israel—via health insurance the workers pay for through their wages — instead having them seek medical treatment at Palestinian medical facilities — which the workers pay for out of pocket and then must try to get reimbursement for.

“The employers are just trying to get away with as much as they can. It’s nothing personal against the Palestinian workers. They just have a population group that needs the work and has been doing the work under these conditions,” explained attorney Nasrat Dakwar, an Israeli-Palestinian lawyer who focuses on human rights violations in the occupied territories.

Giving unionized workers a tool

In recent years, Palestinians have become more aware of their rights thanks to work of Kav LaOved, and the WAC-MAAN union and Palestinian unions, and have begun filing legal complaints against their employers. But many employers still prefer not to provide Palestinian employees with the benefits they are entitled to. The employers risk being taken to court rather than pay them what they legally should, because they know that in most cases, Palestinians are likely to come to an agreement so Israeli employers in settlement industrial zones usually end up paying less than they should by law, said Dakwar.

With the unemployment rate in the West Bank hovering between 15 to 17 percent this year, according to the World Bank, combined with the difficulty of gaining permits to work in Israel, Palestinians have been willing to accept the inferior pay and social benefits of factory jobs in settlement industrial parks.

“In this way, factories benefit from both the economic advantage granted (to) them by Israel for situating themselves in areas of national priority and from the authorities’ willful blindness regarding Palestinian workers’ rights,” noted Kav LaOved in a 2013 report. “This situation creates a convenient basis for the exploitation of workers who have little bargaining power and thus can only file lawsuits once their employment has been terminated (when they are no longer in fear of losing their jobs.)”

In most cases, the organization said in the report, Palestinian workers’ claims end in settlements much lower than what they deserve according to the law.

Regulation of Palestinian laborers in Israel has been based on a government decision from 1970. Two decades later, these provisions passed in the Knesset as part of the Law Implementing the 1994 Agreement on the Gaza Strip and the Jericho Area, which Israel signed with the PLO to restrict the Palestinian Authority’s activities in Jerusalem.

Exploited and underpaid, Palestinian women are fighting back in the workplace
Aerial view of Mishor Adumim industrial park. (Neukoln/CC BY-SA 3.0)

According to Kav LaOved, Israel fails to apply the law fully. “The government enforces the employers’ duty to pay taxes and deposit social welfare payments on behalf of workers, but it does not enforce the transfer of collected funds to its intended recipients,” the organization wrote in a 2016.

Following a 14-year struggle by Kav LaOved, in 2007 the Israeli Supreme Court ruled that Palestinians, including those working in West Bank settlements, are entitled to the same employment terms and rights that Israeli labor laws guarantee to Israeli workers. This is despite objections by some employers, including the Ma’ale Adumim municipality and another factory in Mishor Adumim owned by the Evan Bar Ltd. Company, which argued that Palestinians should be compensated according to Jordanian labor laws.

In recent years, Palestinians have been more inclined to go to court to demand their rights. As they learn more about their rights under Israeli law and see the positive results of unionizing, more workers are beginning to band together and organize similar actions, said WAC-MAAN’s Tamir, who held a solidarity meeting with the workers from Mevashlim Bishvilech at a café at the Almog Junction near Jericho.

“According to Israeli law, workers have the right to unionize and strike and the employer has to face the workers. He can’t fire them or bring in new workers. The law forces the employer to sit and negotiate. It gives unionized workers a tool,” said Tamir said on Wednesday.

This article has been modified to reflect the effects of West Bank settlements on Palestinian workers and the Palestinian economy.