The Israel-Palestine conflict has had dire effects on both parties, with hundreds of casualties. Palestinians continue to face institutionalized discrimination in Israel and the Occupied Palestinian Territories (OPT). In the Jordan Valley of the West Bank, Palestinians work in the Israeli settlements to survive poverty and destitution. Hundreds of impoverished Palestinian children work or are employed in the Israeli settlements and farms in the West Bank. Most of them are located in the Jordan Valley. According to Human Rights Watch, Palestinian kids as young as eleven years old work in the agricultural industry of the settlement.
This blog explores the child labour rampant in the Israeli settlements, the hazardous working conditions and the causes behind the pitiful state of the Palestinian children.
Child labour and working conditions
Most children drop out of school and work in extremely hazardous conditions- dangerous equipment, pesticides and sweltering heat. The work on the agricultural settlements includes picking, cleaning and packing tomatoes, asparagus, eggplants, sweet peppers, dates, onions and other crops. As per Human Rights Watch, work begins as early as 5.30 or 6 in the morning and lasts for around eight hours per day. Work goes on regardless of weekdays or weekends. The peak harvest season sees a lot more work than there already is. Children are reported to be working for twelve hours a day, more than sixty hours a week. Pressure and fear instilled by the supervisors prevent the children from taking a break.
The work done is gruelling, hazardous and numbing. Children experience vomiting and dizziness. Their skin breaks out in a rash after they spray pesticides with little or no protection. Carrying the heavy pesticide containers on their back results in body pain or numbness. Using sharp blades to cut the sweet peppers, onions and other crops often result in cuts on their bodies as well. Heavy machinery is no easier either. There have been incidents like a child pinned under a tractor that rolled over and fingers getting caught and crushed in machines. There’s always the risk of falling down the ladders used to pick dates and prunes. Crawling scorpions sting children while working in the fields.
In the summer, the temperatures in the fields often soar above 40 degrees Celsius (more than 100 degrees Fahrenheit). It can go as high as 50 degrees Celsius (122 degrees Fahrenheit) inside the greenhouses. The children experience nausea, fainting spells and other symptoms that indicate they are prone to heatstroke due to working under such extreme temperatures.
Reports show that none of the children received social insurance benefits or medical insurance. Those who were in need of medical care because of illness or work injuries had to pay their own medical bills and cover the costs of transportation to the Palestinian hospitals. If children need to go to the hospital or home in the middle of work due to an injury, more often than not, they have to go without wages for the hours they had put in till then. As for time off work, it is unpaid.
While there are adults working in the settlements too, the number of Palestinian children who slave their guts out is staggering. Both the adults and children claim they continue to take on such work owing to the lack of other jobs and to battle poverty-stricken conditions at home. The severe conditions that they go through are because of Israel’s policies regarding the West Bank and the Jordan Valley. Because of the policies, the Palestinians have an extremely hard time accessing the land, water, ability to transport goods and access agricultural inputs such as fertilizers.
Palestinian adults and children working on the settlements do cling to the hope that Israel will lift their policies and settlement agriculture due to pressure from the international community. If that did indeed happen, then the Palestinians would have access to land, water, the market and freedom of movement. It would mean that the Palestinians would be able to cultivate their own lands, thus improving their economic situation and supporting their children to pursue their education. Ironically, the Palestinians now work on the very land that Israel has confiscated from their own villages and turned into settlements, all by violating international laws.
As said earlier, a majority of the students who work in the settlements are school dropouts. According to the Human Rights Report, the teachers and principals claim that children drop out by the age of 14. Some children work in the fields and attend school part-time. The work often costs them their education, since they are exhausted in class. While most of the children live in the villages of the Jordan Valley, some of them come from villages elsewhere in the West Bank and moved to the Jordan Valley. To save time and money spent on travelling back and forth from home, these children live for months in empty warehouses and work in the settlements during the day.
As for the wages that the children get, they are next to nothing. Reports show that what the Palestinians get paid is far less than the Israeli minimum wage. Out of this, travelling to and fro from their homes and settlements put a dent in their already meagre wages. Military orders issued by the commander of the Israeli military in the West Bank make provisions under Israel’s domestic Minimum Wage Law applicable to the Palestinian workers too. But what do children know if the Minimum Wage Law is applicable to them, or even that such a law exists?
Reports gathered by Human Rights Watch show that all the children were employed in the settlements through unwritten agreements. It was Palestinian middlemen who worked on behalf of the Israeli landowners who took care of these agreements. The Israeli settlers’ practice of hiring Palestinian middlemen to bring in more Palestinian workers means that no document, paper or contract exists that links the children to the settlers. Thus, there is no proof of the settler-employee relationship. And without any paper or documents, it is extremely hard for the Palestinian workers to demand their rights granted to them under the Israeli labour law. The workers get paid in cash, no payslips are given out and no such thing as a work permit exists in the settlements. Hence, the complete absence of a paper trail makes it impossible to demand severance pay too.
Violation of International Law
The Palestinian children working in the Israeli settlements are in violation of not merely international law, but of Israeli and Palestinian law as well. Both Palestine and Israel are party to both the International Covenant on Economic, Social and Cultural Rights, and to the Convention on the Rights of the Child as well. The latter recognizes the child’s right to be protected from being economically exploited and from performing any work that may prove hazardous or interfere with the child’s education.
Although international, Palestinian and Israeli law states that the minimum age of employment is 15, many of the children who work in the settlements started out as young as 11 or 12. Those who work part-time are even younger, as young as 10 years old.
Moreover, Israel is privy to the International Labour Organization (ILO) Conventions 138 and 182. According to these conventions, Israel has indeed affirmed that the minimum age of employment is 15 (whereas children of the ages 13 and 14 may be subjected to ‘light work’). Under the conventions, Israel is in agreement to prohibit any child under the age of 18 from working under hazardous conditions. Israeli law also demands that a child, during their period of compulsory schooling (until 10th grade in Israel), should only be employed as an apprentice. Well, talk about flouting multiple laws at once.
During their summer vacation, children aged 14 are allowed to work but only in positions that are comparatively undemanding and do not pose a threat to their health. While the Palestinian children remain oblivious of their rights, the Israeli authorities apply the national laws to the Israeli children who work in the settlements. These laws include labour and education laws that render basic education compulsory and free. Israel’s labour courts and Supreme Court have consistently ruled that Israel extend the same to the Palestinian children in the settlements. However, the authorities of the country have fallen short of enforcing these laws. And to add to the miserable conditions, not a single labour inspection has been conducted in the field in recent times. None of the children, according to Human Rights Watch, have ever spoken to an Israeli labour inspector. Israeli officials claim that such a lack of enforcement of the laws is due to the lack of a definite allocated responsibility between the Civil Administration and the Israeli ministry of economy. But similar excuses have been made by the officials for years. When it comes to the Palestinian workers, Israel turns blind and deaf to both the violations of laws and the plight of the children.
Neither can the Palestinian law help children. Yes, Palestinian law clearly states that ten years of primary education is compulsory and free for children and employing children under 15 is prohibited. Neither can children between the ages of 15 and 18 be subjected to hazardous work like the use of pesticides or carrying heavy loads. But the Palestinian authorities neither have the authority nor the capacity to enforce these laws, since the Jordan Valley and the settlements fall under Israel’s jurisdiction and control. In a few instances, Palestinian authorities have made a few arrests of Palestinian middlemen while they were voyaging through certain areas that fall under Palestinian jurisdiction. These middlemen have been prosecuted for hiring children and violating other labour laws.
Restriction of Palestinian land and expansion of Israeli settlements
Another factor that plays a vital role in the abuses against Palestinian children is Israel’s policies. The policies restrict agriculture, the traditional Palestinian economic activity, in the Jordan Valley while at the same time it supports Israeli settlement agriculture. The Palestinians’ role in planning and zoning the land was revoked through an Israeli military order. The Israeli settlers, on the other hand, are granted a different, preferential zoning system. Thousands of Palestinians reside in the Jordan Valley, but the Israeli restrictions mean more than 90% of the Jordan Valley is restricted to the Palestinians.
By contrast, Israel has allocated about 86 per cent of the land in the Jordan Valley to the jurisdiction of regional settlement councils, which look after the interests of the 9500 settlers who reside in the Valley. Some of the Palestinians residing in the Jordan Valley have to pay rent for using the very farmlands that Israel illegally took hold of without compensation and transformed into settlements.
In the West Bank, the amount of water provided by the Israeli wells to the settlers in the Jordan Valley (and operated by the Israeli national water carrier) is one-quarter of the water supply that the whole Palestinian population gets. The Palestinian’s inability to access land or water or to export crops costs the Palestinian economy millions every year. The Palestinian agricultural sector also employs fewer people. As a result, Palestinian localities in the Jordan Valley suffer the highest poverty rates in the entire West Bank. Thus, freedom of movement, restricted land, and water and market access has led to general unemployment and poverty amongst the Palestinians. So, families have little choice other than to send their kids to work in the settlements and eke out a living. Knowing that working on the settlements is their only income, the settlers also exploit the workers.
Despite other states and multilateral organizations criticising Israel’s illegal policies in the Jordan Valley, there have been no remedial actions taken by the country. The International Labour Organization has expressed various concerns regarding the abuse of Palestinian children in the settlement but to no avail. Efforts by internationally funded humanitarian agencies to aid the Palestinians in the region have been continuously thwarted by Israel. Instead, what remains of the Palestinian schools have been ordered to be demolished.
The trade relationships between foreign countries and Israeli settlements help to sustain settlement-based businesses. This undermines humanitarian and political efforts to aid the Palestinians and their economy. While foreign states attempt to provide humanitarian assistance to Palestinians in the Jordan Valley, the exported goods and the routes are controlled by Israel. The Israeli laws that are supposed to be extended to the Palestinian children and protect their rights and interests are pretty much a void. At the same time, the Palestinian laws serving to protect the children cannot help them, since the children reside and work in the Jordan Valley, which falls under Israeli control and jurisdiction. Meanwhile, the discrimination and abuse against Palestinian children by the Israeli settlers.