Bad pay, hard labor, nasty skin rashes, and poor sleep in constructions sites are just the tip of work conditions found in Israeli agricultural settlements, said Human Rights Watch (HRW) in a report released Monday. The 74-page “Israel: Settlement Agriculture Harms Palestinian Children” is a devastating look into underage Palestinian laborers farming for Israeli companies. Minors as young as 11 are interviewed about their work as farm hands in the Jordan Valley, a bread basket in the West Bank—rather a “date basket” as dates are the top export from the region, and Israel is the highest supplier of dates in the international market.
Children working on these farms are exposed to toxins that cause serious illness. “They handle pesticides that cause nausea, dizziness and skin rashes, and over the long-term, are associated with cancer, neurological problems, and infertility,” said the report. While no Israeli child would be given a backpack full of neurotoxins in order to spray a damp layer over produce, Palestinian children are. HRW noted Israel ruled back in 1992 these chemicals are illegal for minors to handle.
A 15-year old named Saleh who left school to work on an agricultural farm described the job:
My shoulders are numb from carrying the backpack that I spray the pesticides with – it’s a 15-liter tank. I spray for half an hour each time, then I refill the tank. I need to do this 15 times before I’m done, on the days I’m spraying. I don’t do it every day – the older guys spray every day.
HRW also found three teenagers who claimed to have vomited after spraying pesticides, among other ailments. “I have had rashes on my hands, sore eyes, and I’ve thrown up after spraying it. The boss tells us to go home until we get better,” said a 16-year old who worked in the settlement of Tomer.
During the summer months when schools are out of secession, more children are employed on the farms. One 16-year old who said he dropped out at age 14 described being fired from pepper picking and pesticide spraying after passing out five days in a row. At the time he was working in a greenhouse. “I took myself home when it happened the next day. On the third day, I took myself home, then to the hospital in Jericho, where they gave me headache pills and said it was heatstroke,” said the child.
The extreme heat inside these produce facilities can reach over 120 degrees Fahrenheit. Incidentally, Israeli law forbids minors from working in temperatures above 104 degrees.
The labor force in the Jordan Valley settlements are almost entirely sourced from a black market enterprise. Palestinian middlemen, subcontractors who–for a price–assemble lots of workers for hire on settlements, are notorious for turning a blind eye to underage workers. They do not get their laborers binding employment contracts, and therefore Palestinians do not receive the benefits that are guaranteed to them by Israeli law.
By comparison Palestinians who are employed in settlement factories generally have work contracts. Often industrial zones are located inside of a settlement’s guarded gates. Workers must present documentation in order to enter. Because these workers are on the books, they have the ability to access certain labor protections enshrined under Israeli law. Israel allows workers to sue their settler employers for lost wages if they fall ill, or seek medical care inside of Israel free of charge for work related injuries. However, the farmers must pay for their own treatment in a lesser quality Palestinian hospital and do not get back-pay for sickness or injury, because they are undocumented workers.
Another testimony from a second Palestinian child aged 15 detailed employer pressures to not take breaks, including bathroom breaks. The young worker claimed if he did not keep up with the arduous pace outlined through daily quotas, he feared “black listing,” a practice where middlemen refuse to hire a worker, or the worker’s family in the future:
If you sit down while you’re working with peppers or grapes the supervisor will come and tell you to stand up and not take a break. We don’t get bathrooms – we get permission from the supervisor to go out in the fields. They are always yelling at us, not insulting us but saying, ‘Work faster, you’re too slow.’ There’s no respect for me there. The middleman will fire people in the morning, without giving them their pay for the day, like if they damage the fruit for example. You can’t switch middlemen, they would talk to each other and force you to go back to the first one you tried to quit on.
Amongst Palestinians, settlement jobs are plentiful and coveted—even with the labor abuses and transport fees. While Palestinian child date farmers on settlements earn almost half of what Israeli minimum wage dictates, the pay is still higher than the average salary in a Palestinian owned farm. For an eight-hour shift, HRW said, underage Palestinians are given an average of $19 per day. Many workers said their take-home pay was much lower, as Palestinian workers pay for their own travel to and from the farms. They often must ride in expensive taxis from their villages to the Israeli controlled areas.
Responding to the publication of the report, David Elhayani from the Jordan Valley Regional Council and previously a settler farmer told AFP, “They’ve made up lies. The entire goal of this organization [HRW] is to sully Israel’s image.” While Elhayani dismissed the overall findings, he did suggest that oversight is lacking when it comes to farms hiring Palestinians through middlemen. “If some child infiltrates [works on a farm through a contractor], I have no way of knowing,” he said, again to AFP.
As HRW noted, Israel has consistently said it is the Palestinian Authority that must investigate labor abuses experienced by Palestinians, including child workers. Yet the Palestinian Authority has no jurisdiction over settler agricultural tracts in the West Bank.
Research groups and governments do not document the exact number of minors working as farm hands, because most of the labor is unregulated. HRW estimates a few hundred to one-thousand are employed during high season. It’s worth mentioning HRW is not the first group to investigate Palestinian minors in Israeli settlements, or the health hazards they are exposed to. Ma’an Development Center has published extensively on the topic. HRW is, however, the first international non-government organization to conduct a lengthy, four-year inquiry.