Palestinian workers in West Bank Israeli settlements after the High Court of Justice Ruling
by: Kav LaOved
In October 2007, in a precedent-setting ruling, a nine judges panel of the High Court of Justice ruled unanimously that Israeli labour laws applied equally to Israeli employers and their Palestinian West Bank workers, ‘unless the parties decide differently’. Prior to the ruling, Jordanian law, less amenable than protective Israeli law to the workers, applied in West Bank settlements. The ruling was handed down following a court petition filed by Kav LaOved and Palestinians working for Israeli employers.
Palestinian workers hope that the High Court of Justice’s ruling will be implemented, but the employers are trying to deny the implications of the ruling. In industrial zones across the West Bank it has been rumoured that the High Court ruling could be reversed. One rumour says that the Israeli Civil Administration in the settlement Beit El has published an Order reversing the ruling. These rumours have caused confusion among workers, some of whom cannot believe that an official authority in Israel acknowledges their entitlement to the same rights as Israeli workers in these communities. They have long been used to seeing themselves as second class workers with their employers treating them, in view of the ongoing violence, as if they were doing them a favour by employing them,. The High Court ruling soon motivated Palestinian workers to claim their rights in Israel’s labour courts.
Since the ruling was handed down, the number of claims by Palestinian workers employed in Jewish West Bank settlements has risen. Class actions have also been brought by workers against their current employers.
Jerusalem Bar Stone Ltd
Forty seven Jerusalem Bar Stone Ltd. workers at the Mishor Adumim plant seeking minimum wages applied to the Jerusalem court to place the company in receivership, claiming that it was in financial difficulties. The application was denied. On June 13, 2008, legal action was taken on behalf of four workers for the difference between their salaries and the minimum wage, for compensation, holiday pay, recuperation pay, annual leave, payment in lieu of notice and pension rights from the time they started work on October 10, 2004 and until their jobs were terminated.
The empowerment of the Jerusalem Bar Stone employees over the past two years justifies our working assumption that knowledge is power. The workers elected a stable workers committee to negotiate with management. The workers committee worked closely with Kav LaOved concerning particulars of its negotiations with the company. The committee included the workers in its decision taking.
Wages are very low. The daytime shift received 60 shekels per day for eight and a half hours work, starting at 7:00 a.m. and finishing at 3:30 p.m. The night shift received 160 shekels for fifteen hours work. Withholding pay was normal practice. Management would pay wages in instalments over a period of four months after the legal time of payment. In this way, pay was withheld for up to four months. In May 2007, after several months of unproductive negotiation, the workers took industrial action in order to obtain their wages. Following four days of well-publicised collective protest, the company signalled that it could no longer treat its workers as if they were in its pocket.
The workers had not received their due social benefits, neither under 1965 Jordanian law, nor under Israeli labour laws, which replaced Jordanian law by the October 2007 High Court ruling. These workers had never received holiday pay, recuperation pay, sick leave or annual leave.
When the workers sought recourse in the courts to obtain their rights, management tried to apply pressure with threats and with promises to improve conditions. Some workers quit as a result and others submitted to management and accepted small sums of money. In April 2008 the employer took the extreme measure of discontinuing employees’ work permits, thus preventing the workers pursuing the case from working at the plant.
On July 10, 2008, four Palestinian workers’ lawsuits were filed at the Jerusalem Regional Labour Court against Jerusalem Bar Stone Ltd., Mr. Eyal Yona (Shareholder) and Mr. Yigal Zaken (Company Director). The workers sought the difference between their wages and the minimum wage for the period of their employment, all the social benefits due to them under the protective labour laws and payments to their pension fund withheld during their period of employment. The average amount of each lawsuit was restricted to 100,000 shekels in order to maintain lower court fees. This is the first group of plaintiffs employed by Jerusalem Bar Stone Ltd. Dozens more will be bringing lawsuits over the coming weeks, as soon as the details concerning their work terms have been clarified.
The company has offered the workers settlements for sums smaller than their due according to law. Several employees agreed and have signed undertakings not to bring further legal action. We intend to sue on behalf of those employees who signed and accepted the sums offered to them, since the minimum wage law states that any agreement by an employee to accept less than the minimum wage is invalid.
Work permits as a bargaining chip: Yad Lechayey Adam Carpenters
Many Israeli employers use work permits as a bargaining chip to silence their Palestinian workers. Work permits are only granted if employers apply for it on behalf of their workers. The permit allows the worker to pass through the industrial zone’s checkpoint. Most Israeli firms in the West Bank do not provide attendance logs, and workers do not receive pay slips. Some plants take away their workers’ work permit on their last day at work, and the workers then have no proof of having worked.
Work permits are renewed every three months, but renewal is not automatic. Sometimes they are not renewed because of a worker’s traffic violation. In many cases workers lose their jobs because work permits are withheld for security reasons, with no explanation offered regarding the criteria involved.
In November 2007 work permits were withheld from Yad Lechayey Adam Carpenters workers in the Mishor Adumim industrial zone in order to intimidate them and to prevent them from demanding their legal rights. The workers were protesting that their wages had been withheld over two months, that they had not been paid the minimum wage, that they had not received pay slips, and that they had not received salary in lieu of holidays, recuperation pay, overtime pay and sick pay. The workers also demanded that better safety conditions be enforced at the plant, and complained that they are not issued proper protective clothing for working in the vicinity of machinery and that there is no basic medical equipment to treat work related accidents. The employer refused to acquiesce in their demands or even to speak to them. Several days later, the employer returned most employees’ work permits, and dismissed seven of them.
Yad Lechayey Adam employees had two great fears to contend with: that of their work permits being withheld and that of losing their livelihoods. These fears are shared by most Palestinian workers employed both in the West Bank and in Israel. In many cases, fear prevents them from adopting measures they perceive as possibly antagonizing their employers.
What about inspection?
On November 12, 2007, an Industry Trade and Labour Ministry inspector visited the Yad Lechayey Adam plant and heard the workers’ complaints. On May 14 the inspector returned and spoke to the workers again. The employer refused to speak to the inspector. Despite the two visits, the employer has yet to be penalised. The employer persisted in his refusal to accept the workers’ demands, and their conditions have not improved. Some workers were forced to pay 50 shekels for the work permits, which the employer applies for on their behalf.
Over the past three years, we have registered four visits by Industry, Trade and Labour Ministry inspectors to Mishor Adumim plants. The first visit occurred in April 2006 at the Barbour Laundrette. In May 2006 Jerusalem Bar Stone was visited. As mentioned, two separate visits were paid to Yad Lechayey Adam. So far, delinquent employers were not served with fines or otherwise sanctioned. It appears that these inspections have not deterred the employers, who continue to violate their workers’ rights.
No Health and Safety inspections have been made by the Inspection department. The Civil Administration’s Staff Officer for Employment makes occasional inspections, but does not possess the professional tools needed for inspecting plants where safety hazards exist.
Barkan Industrial Park: near the centre, but away from the eye of the law
At the Barkan Industrial Park in the West Bank Israeli employers have found ways of evading the High Court of Justice ruling concerning the application of Israeli labour law to Palestinian workers in Israeli settlements. Some employers issue pay slips with false attendance reports. The normal practice is to register fewer working days than those actually worked, so it appears that the minimum wage is being paid.
Avgi Morris Carpenters employs fifty Palestinian workers. On average they work ten hours a day for between ten to seventeen shekels an hour, according to how long they have worked there. The employer makes his workers sign their pay slips, stating that they receive the minimum wage. The workers do not receive their statutory rights, such as recuperation pay, overtime, holiday pay or salary in lieu of holidays. Some workers fired by the plant, as well as an additional twenty five who still work there, took their employer to court.
Another common phenomenon at the industrial park is using Palestinian contractors, who pay the workers cash and serve as middlemen between workers and employers. The workers complain of great pressure being applied to them to prevent them working directly for the employers.
The Royal Night textile plant, established in late 2003 at the Barkan Industrial Park, employs some sixty workers from all over the West Bank, who started working there in 2004. The bedclothes produced at the plant are in demand by big customers both in Israel and overseas. The workers’ work permits are under the name of a different employer.
Workers employed through a Palestinian contractor are paid between six and eight shekels an hour, whereas workers employed directly by the factory are paid between nine and eleven shekels an hour. The workers do not receive pay slips, holidays, sick leave, recuperation, overtime or holiday pay.
Health and safety standards are poor: the working environment is noisy and the air is full of fabric dust. Most work is carried out standing, and the workers take five minute breaks at their own expense. They complain of exposure to dangerous cleaning substances and of working near cutting machines lacking safety devices. The company does not employ a Health and Safety official and the workers have received no instructions or cautions regarding the possible dangers of operating the machinery. The workers claim that they have not undergone medical examinations.
Employment via contractors
Contractors have a negative effect on employer-employee relations because they serve as the link between Palestinian workers and their Israeli employers. The employers find it easier to deal with a single contractor rather than with dozens of employees. The contractors usually recruit the workers and place them in jobs. They sometimes supervise their work. Thus, the employer can avoid meeting his workers. Moreover, there is no written employment contract between the workers, the contractor and the employer. Contractors pay workers by the 17th of each month in cash for the previous month’s work (that’s more than a week later than the legally specified time). Workers do not know how much the contractor receives per worker from the factory managers.
Palestinian society treats the large contractors with suspicion, particularly those who collaborate or who have collaborated with Israeli security services. These contractors are thought to have protection in high places. Some of them are armed and run virtual empires within the company. Therefore, both workers and unions find it very hard to deal with them.
Both male and female workers in the Jordan Valley are employed by Palestinian contractors, who create difficulties for workers seeking to organise in an effort to demand their rights. Workers typically earn a third of the minimum wage. The contractors act like employment bureaux and employ family members and the unemployed in their home village. Some large contractors employ sub-contractors. This makes it very difficult for workers to be in direct touch with their Israeli employers. Also, most employees are seasonal workers working for several employers, and placed at random by the contractors. This precludes their accruing rights over the years. Not even veteran employees enjoy employer-employee rights, apart from their work permits.
The problems generated by contractor employment are demonstrated by the following case. In March 2008, 43 plant workers sued their employer in a Tel Aviv labour court. They sought the difference between their actual wages and minimum wages, plus salary in lieu of holidays, recuperation pay and holiday pay. In its Statement of Defence, the company denied the claim that employer-employee relations existed, and further claimed that they were employed by a Palestinian contractor.
The defence stated (regarding a single worker, but this claim represents the company’s stance regarding all plaintiffs): “it was never intended to form employment relationship between the defendant and the plaintiff. On the contrary, the parties’ intentions were clear: the plaintiff is employed by a contractor and by him alone. As part of the business agreement between the defendant and the contractor, the defendant had agreed to have the plaintiff placed at his plant. The plaintiff was well aware of this fact, and it was not by chance that for the entire period of placement at the plant, the plaintiff had not made any claims to the defendant that employer-employee relations existed between them”.
Since the court petition was submitted and until the time of writing, the workers complain of tension at the plant and of pressures being applied to them to make them withdraw their claim, which include deteriorating working conditions. The plaintiffs’ work day has been reduced from twelve to eight hours, resulting in considerably lower wages. Workers were not allowed to take holidays or sick leave, and were threatened with dismissal. Eight of the plaintiffs have quit their jobs as a result.
On top of threatening workers, the employer has also tried to tempt them with a 5,000 shekel settlement, but the workers are determined to persist with their lawsuit and have expressed their faith in the justice system.
Workers organise at the Nitzanei Shalom Industrial Park
Workers at various plants respond differently to the information they acquire regarding violations of their rights at the workplace. They often work under unsafe conditions, exposed to chemical substances and poor ventilation, or unprotected from the sun. They often work standing up for long periods and without appropriate clothing. They do not undergo periodical medical examinations. Many of them suffer from various pains and take home the smell of the chemical substances they absorb at work.
Workers’ social rights are also violated. Most Palestinian workers, including skilled workers of over ten years’ standing, do not receive the minimum wage. They are typically paid less than half the minimum wage. Most workers do not receive pay slips, and do not get payment for holidays, recuperation pay, overtime, sick leave or vacations. It is easy to dismiss workers, and if they demand improved conditions, they may lose their jobs.
Experience shows that the main cause for dispute between workers’ representatives and the plant managements is recruiting workers in their struggle for their rights. In plants where managements have managed to break up workers’ organisations, it has become more difficult to demand rights. In plants where workers have a strong and flexible leadership, the struggle is not yet over and managements are apprehensive about dismissing workers.
Over the past year, we have contacted workers employed at three plants in the Nitzanei Shalom Industrial Park near Tul Karm. In all cases the workers publicly demanded better working conditions, particularly payment according to the minimum wage law.
At the Yamit plant which has strong worker representation, the workers have managed to increase their wages, although not all of them receive minimum wage.
At the adjacent Tal El plant workers went on strike for three weeks in November 2007. After the management dismissed three members of the strike committee, the committee broke up and workers reported a feeling of fear and confusion. Kav LaOved sued the plant for illegal dismissal. The company claimed that it did not know that the workers had organised and that it had dismissed the workers for negligence.
At the Sol Or plant, the strike failed after the employer managed to introduce a Palestinian contractor from Hebron, who brought people willing to work under the poor conditions suffered by the eighty striking workers.
Cooperation with Palestinian trade unions
Over the part three years Kav LaOved has maintained a project for supporting the rights of Palestinian workers in Israeli West Bank settlements. The project is in complete collaboration with the Palestinian General Federation of Trade Unions branches in Jericho, Qalqilia, Tubas, Tul Karm and Jenin. Our meetings with workers to plan practical measures to be taken for organising workers take place at Federation offices, so that mutual trust is created between the workers and Federation representatives.
The Palestinian trade unions face big challenges, the main one being the political issue of supporting workers in Israeli settlements. Will support be seen as legitimising Israeli settlements? Will improving conditions encourage working in Israeli settlements?
Deliberations over these questions have lasted for many years. However, given that an ever increasing number of workers are employed in Israeli settlements, the unions have realized that Palestinians living under Israeli rule have a right to work, and that the State of Israel, sovereign under international law, must provide them with jobs and decent work standards.