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A Palestinian child clambering in a date palm on an Israeli settlement farm - from cover of the HRW report 'Ripe for Abuse - Palestinian Child Labor in Israeli Agricultural Settlements in the West Bank'.
A Palestinian child clambering in a date palm on an Israeli settlement farm - from cover of the HRW report 'Ripe for Abuse - Palestinian Child Labor in Israeli Agricultural Settlements in the West Bank'.
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Ripe for abuse - Palestinian child labour in Israel's West Bank settlement farms

Human Rights Watch / The Ecologist

29th April 2015

Palestinian children as young as 11 work on Israeli farms in the occupied West Bank, an HRW investigation reveals. While the EU buys produce worth $300m a year from the illegal 'settlements', undocumented child labourers are exposed to pesticides, paid well below the minimum wage, enjoy no employment rights, and toil long hours in hot fields and greenhouses.

Israel's policies, which violate its obligations as the occupying power, further impoverish Palestinian families, leaving many parents with few alternatives to seeking work in settlements and often sending their children to work there too.

Hundreds of Palestinian children work on Israeli settlement farms in the occupied West Bank, the majority located in the Jordan Valley.

Human Rights Watch (HRW) has documented human rights abuses against Palestinian children as young as 11 years old, who earn around US $19 for a full day working in the settlement agricultural industry.

Many drop out of school and work in conditions that can be hazardous due to pesticides, dangerous equipment, and extreme heat. Children working on Israeli settlements pick, clean, and pack asparagus, tomatoes, eggplants, sweet peppers, onions, and dates, among other crops.

Those we interviewed said they begin work as early as 5:30 or 6 am and usually work around 8 hours a day, six or seven days a week. During peak harvest periods, some children reported working up to 12 hours a day, over 60 hours a week, and described pressure from supervisors to keep working, and not to take breaks.

Although international law, as well as Israeli and Palestinian law, sets 15 as the minimum age of employment, many children told HRW investigators that they began working at age 13 or 14. Even younger children work part-time, and one boy interviewed by Human Rights Watch said that he worked together with a boy who was only 10 years old.

Exposure to pesticides and frequent injuries

The work that children perform can be both grueling and hazardous. Some children who work on settlement farms described vomiting, dizziness, and skin rashes after spraying pesticides with little protection.

Others experienced body pain or numbness from carrying heavy pesticide containers on their back. Many suffered cuts from using sharp blades to cut onions, sweet peppers, and other crops.

Heavy machinery also causes injuries. One child said he saw another child who was pinned under a tractor that rolled over. Another boy said he caught his finger in a date-sorting machine. Children risk falls from climbing ladders to prune and pick dates. Two had been stung by scorpions while working in settlers' fields.

Temperatures in the fields often exceed 40C in summer (over 100F) and can be as high as 50C (122F) in greenhouses. Some children described nausea and other symptoms indicating they were susceptible to heat stroke from working in such extreme temperatures. One boy told us that he had repeatedly fainted while working in a hot greenhouse.

None of the children interviewed received medical insurance or social insurance benefits, and the majority of those who needed medical treatment due to work injuries or illness said they had to pay their own medical bills and transportation costs to Palestinian hospitals.

Three Palestinian children who got sick or were injured while working and had to go home or to the hospital said they were not even paid for the hours they had worked that day, much less for the time they had to take off work.

Forced into hard labour by grinding poverty

To research this report, HRW interviewed 38 children and 12 adults in Palestinian communities in the Jordan Valley who said they were employed to work on settlement farms in the area, as well as teachers and principals in those communities, Israeli and Palestinian labor lawyers, development-agency staff and labor rights advocates.

Children are a minority of Palestinians employed on settlement farms, but most Palestinian children who work in settlements do so in the agricultural sector. All of the children and adults we interviewed said they took the work due to a lack of alternative jobs.

Another factor was the dire economic conditions faced by their families - conditions for which Israel's policies throughout the occupied West Bank including the Jordan Valley, which severely restrict Palestinians' access to land, water, agricultural inputs like fertilizers, and their ability to transport goods, are largely responsible.

One 18-year-old said that he quit school in Grade 10 because, as he explained, "so what if you get an education, you'll wind up working for the settlements." The vast majority of the children working in settlements that we interviewed said they had dropped out of school. Teachers and principals told us that children often dropped out around Grade 8, or age 14.

Of the 33 children we interviewed who were then working full-time in agricultural settlements, 21 had dropped out of schools in Grade 10 or earlier; the other 12 dropped out of secondary school in Grade 11 or 12.

Other children worked part-time while still attending school, often at the expense of their studies. "It's very obvious which kids go to work in the settlements, because they are exhausted in class", said a school administrator.

All the children Human Rights Watch interviewed said that they were working to provide money for their families. When asked why children chose to work, a Palestinian middleman who supplied Palestinian workers to settlers told an Israeli human rights worker: "Ask [the children] if they have any bread in the house."

'Give us back our land and water!'

Palestinian children and adults who work in settlements told Human Rights Watch that they hoped the international community would pressure Israel to end settlement agriculture and lift related restrictions on Palestinian land-use, access to water, freedom of movement, and market access.

Instead, they want Palestinians to be allowed to cultivate their own lands and to create an economic environment in which they could support their children to stay in school and receive an education.

In some cases, Palestinian workers said that they worked on farmland that Israel had, in violation of international law, confiscated from their own villages and allocated to settlements.

Most of the children and adults live in villages in the Jordan Valley. Some of the children came from villages elsewhere in the West Bank, moved to the Jordan Valley, and lived for months at a time in empty warehouses there, working in settlements during the day, in order to save on the cost and time required to travel from home.

Pay well below the legal minimum wage

Children working in agricultural settlements earn very low wages. All of the Palestinian adults and children whom Human Rights Watch interviewed earned far less than the Israeli minimum wage, which was 23 shekels ($6.20) per hour for adults and between 16 and 18 shekels ($4.30 and $4.86) per hour for children at the time the research for this report was conducted.

Most earned only 60 to 70 shekels per day ($16 to $19), and some children took home 50 shekels per day ($13.50) after paying for transportation to and from settlements to work; most workdays lasted 7 or 8 hours, except during peak harvesting times. (Note: currency conversions are at the rate of 3.7 Israeli shekels per US dollar.)

Military orders issued by the Israeli military commander in the West Bank make provisions of Israel's domestic Minimum Wage Law applicable to Palestinian workers in settlements. However, many children either did not know that Israel had a minimum wage law or that the law's provisions were supposed to apply to Palestinians working in settlements.

All the children Human Rights Watch interviewed said they were employed through unwritten agreements with Palestinian middlemen working on behalf of Israeli settlers.

Israeli settlers' practice of using Palestinian middlemen to hire Palestinian laborers, including children, means that there is no work contract or any other documents linking the children directly to the settler-employer.

In practice, it is extremely difficult for Palestinians who work in settlements to demand their rights under Israeli labor law without such proof of employment. According to a Palestinian middleman, workers are paid "in cash, [get] no pay slips, and there are no [work] permits, so there is no paper trail to demand severance pay or anything else."

Most labor disputes that Palestinian workers and middlemen described to Human Rights Watch involved severance pay, presumably because workers demanding severance pay have already lost their jobs and so have less to lose from making legal claims than workers who are employed.

Israel's Minimum Wage Law - which is applicable, via military orders, to Palestinian workers in settlements - states that workers cannot waive their rights to minimum wages, but none of the Palestinian children or adults interviewed said they expected or had demanded to be paid minimum wages. The Palestinian middleman believed that if a worker asked a settler-employer for a raise, "they'd fire you."

International law violations

Human Rights Watch found many examples of children working in Israeli agricultural settlements in violation of international law as well as Israeli and Palestinian law.

Both Israel and Palestine are party to the International Covenant on Economic, Social and Cultural Rights, and to the Convention on the Rights of the Child, which recognize the right of the child to be protected from being exploited economically and performing work that is likely to be hazardous or interfere with the child's schooling.

The expert committees that monitor states' implementation of these and other human rights treaties, like the Convention on Civil and Political Rights, have concluded that Israel is bound to apply the conventions to the territories it occupies, including the West Bank.

In addition, Israel is party to International Labor Organization (ILO) Conventions 138 and 182. Under those conventions, Israel has affirmed a minimum age of employment of 15 (permitting 'light work' for children of ages 13 and 14) and agreed to prohibit hazardous work for any child under age 18. Israeli law provides that a child may be employed only as an apprentice during the period of compulsory schooling (up to tenth grade in Israel).

Children of age 14 are permitted to work during the summer vacation, but only in positions that are relatively undemanding and are not hazardous to their health. Israeli authorities apply national laws to Israeli children in settlements, including labor laws and education laws that make basic education compulsory and free.

Israeli labour law applies - but is never enforced

Israeli labor courts and the country's Supreme Court have ruled consistently that Israeli labor law protections extend to Palestinian workers in settlements. Israeli military orders have incorporated some domestic labor laws, including the laws on minimum wage and 'foreign workers', which Israel applies to Palestinians working in settlements in the occupied West Bank.

However, Israeli authorities have failed to enforce these laws and did not conduct a single labor inspection in agricultural settlements in 2013, and few or none in other recent years, since at least 2010. None of the Palestinian children working in settlement agriculture whom we interviewed had ever spoken to an Israeli labor inspector.

According to Israeli officials, the lack of enforcement is the result of a lack of clearly allocated responsibility between the Israeli ministry of economy and the Civil Administration, a branch of the military. Israeli officials have made similar excuses for years. In reality, Israel has turned a blind eye to violations of Israeli labor laws vis-à-vis Palestinian workers in the settlement agricultural sector.

As this report describes, Israel's domestic laws on children and work generally reflect its international obligations, and Israeli authorities have partly acknowledged a responsibility to enforce their protections for the benefit of Palestinians working in settlements, even as they fail consistently to do so.

The answer - dismantle and remove the illegal settlements!

However, we do not call on Israel to extend its domestic legal order, including workers' rights protections, into occupied territory.

The international law of belligerent occupation, applicable to the West Bank today, prohibits Israel, as the occupying power, from extending the jurisdiction of its domestic laws into Palestine as though it were the sovereign.

Israel has unlawfully applied domestic laws in occupied territory for the benefit of Israeli settlers, such as laws on the establishment of companies. Israel's civilian settlements in the occupied West Bank depend on its unlawful policies of transferring its civilian population into occupied territory and appropriating land and other resources there for the settlements.

Israel is obliged to dismantle the settlements, and also to prevent abuses against Palestinians working in settlements, even though doing so would not mitigate the unlawful nature of the settlements themselves.

Palestinian law makes 10 years of primary education compulsory and free for children, prohibits employing children under 15 and employing children aged 15 to 18 in hazardous work - such as using pesticides and carrying heavy loads. However, Palestinian authorities lack the authority and capacity

to enforce these laws in either settlements or most rural Palestinian communities in the Jordan Valley where the children live, both of which fall under Israel's exclusive jurisdiction and control.

In a handful of cases, Palestinian authorities have arrested Palestinian middlemen while they were traveling through areas that are under Palestinian jurisdiction, and prosecuted them for hiring children to work in settlements and other labor-law violations.

Expanding settlement agriculture, restrictive anti-Palestinian policies

Another factor underlying abuses against Palestinian children in settlements are Israel's policies that severely restrict the traditional Palestinian economic activity in the Jordan Valley - agriculture - while supporting settlement agriculture.

An Israeli military order revoked Palestinians' role in planning and zoning in the 61% of the West Bank under exclusive Israeli control, including most of the Jordan Valley, but settlers enjoy a different, preferential zoning regime and are represented on planning bodies. (About 30% of the land area of the West Bank lies in the Jordan Valley and Dead Sea areas.)

About 80,000 Palestinians live in the Jordan Valley, comprising almost 90% of its population, but Israeli restrictions on the movement of Palestinians mean that more than 94% of the Jordan Valley is off-limits to Palestinian land use.

By contrast, Israel has allocated about 86% of the land in the Jordan Valley to the jurisdiction of settlement regional councils, which look after the interests of the 9,500 settlers who reside in the Valley.

An Israeli group critical of land use by Israeli settlements in the West Bank, Kerem Navot, documented that even after Israel had allocated large tracts of land to agricultural settlements in the Jordan Valley in the 1970s and 80s, the amount of land cultivated by those settlements grew by an additional 16% from 1997 to 2012.

Palestinians forced to buy their own water, pay rent for their own land

Meanwhile, some Palestinians in the Jordan Valley pay rent to settlers to use farmland that Israel unlawfully appropriated without compensation and transferred to the settlements for free.

The amount of water provided to the Israeli settlers in the Jordan Valley by Israeli wells there, operated by the Israeli national water carrier, is one-quarter of the water supply of the entire Palestinian population of the West Bank.

The World Bank reported in 2013 that Israeli restrictions on Palestinians' ability to irrigate agricultural land and to export crops cost the Palestinian economy US$704 million per year, and that the Palestinian agricultural sector in the West Bank in 2013 employed fewer people and generated less revenue than it had 15 years previously.

According to World Bank data, poverty rates in Palestinian localities in the Jordan Valley are among the highest in the West Bank, at between 28.2 and 33.5%.

Israeli restrictions on Palestinian land-use, freedom of movement, and market access, have generated unemployment and poverty in the Jordan Valley and the rest of the occupied West Bank, and left few opportunities for hundreds of Palestinian families other than to send their children to work on the farms of illegal settlements, where many of their parents also work.

Knowing that families rely on the work, Israeli settler employers exploit Palestinian workers, including children, while Israel turns a blind eye.

Israeli settlement agriculture benefits from labor abuses that keep employment costs low. Settlement agriculture also benefits from Israeli planning and zoning policies in the West Bank. For example, Israel has appropriated land and water from Palestinians and transferred these assets to Israeli settlers, provided subsidies to settlers that are denied to Palestinians, and implemented restrictions on movements that hinder or prevent Palestinian farmers from accessing markets.

Such policies, which violate Israel's obligations as the occupying power to respect the rights of protected persons in occupied territory and prohibit it from transferring its own civilians there, further impoverish Palestinian families, leaving many parents to say they feel they have few alternatives to seeking work in settlements and often sending their children to work there as well.

In accordance with its obligations as the occupying power in the West Bank, Israel should dismantle the settlements, limit its use of land, water and other resources in occupied territory to what is strictly necessary for military purposes, and lift unlawful restrictions on Palestinian access to those resources.

Palestinian child workers in settlement agriculture

The Israeli government does not have figures for the number of Palestinian children working in settlements; none of the children have written contracts, official work permits, or other forms of documentation.

The Palestinian Authority's Central Bureau of Statistics has not reported on the number of children working in Israeli agricultural settlements; it should seek data on the issue of child labor in settlements during a planned child labor survey to be carried out in 2015.

The ILO has stated that it will support the PCBS in its planned survey; see ILO, 'Enhanced programme of technical cooperation for the occupied Arab territories', September 23, 2014, para. 15.

A West Bank humanitarian not-for-profit group that works in Palestinian communities in the Jordan Valley, the Ma'an Development Center, estimates that during the summer season - when the most crops need harvesting and children are out of school - up to 1,000 Palestinian children work in Israeli agricultural settlements.

Palestinian children are apparently a minority of the Palestinian workers in Israeli agricultural settlements, but the agricultural sector nonetheless appears particularly susceptible to employing Palestinian children, because most agricultural workers do not have documentation. Palestinians who work in settlements in other sectors, such as manufacturing or construction, typically work inside the settlements themselves.

To be able to enter a settlement for work or any other reason, Palestinians must obtain official Israeli permits. Settler-employers apply to the Israeli military for these permits on behalf of their Palestinian employees, whom the military subjects to security screening; among other information, the permits list the Palestinians' names, ages and employers.

The Israeli military stated in 2013 that it does not issue work permits to Palestinian children under 18. See Dalia Hatuqa, 'Palestinian children work in Israeli settlements', Al Jazeera, July 6, 2013.

Evading legal responsibilities

By contrast, all the children and adults working in settlement agriculture whom HRW interviewed said they work in greenhouses and fields on land located outside the settlement gates - consistent with reports by Israeli and Palestinian rights groups.

Settler-employers are thus able to employ Palestinians without obtaining the military permits, which could be used in Israeli labor courts as evidence of violations of Israeli labor laws.

The financial interest of settler-employers to keep labor costs low is served when they fail to register their Palestinian employees with the Israeli authorities - unlike Israeli employees, who are registered. Failure to register the employees makes it easier to avoid the Israeli legal requirement to pay minimum wage and other benefits to Palestinians.

Agricultural settlements also employ Israeli citizens, but so far as we have been able to determine, there have been no complaints by Israeli employees on agricultural settlements indicating that they suffer widespread abusive practices similar to those faced by Palestinian workers, or that Israeli children are similarly employed in violation of Israeli labor laws, or work in similar jobs to Palestinian children.

Flouting labour laws

All the Palestinian workers whom we interviewed said settlers hired Palestinian middlemen who take charge of supplying agricultural workers and paying them in cash.

None of the 50 Palestinians - including 38 children - selected for interview during visits to Palestinian communities in the Jordan Valley, who said they were employed in agricultural settlements in the area, received contracts, pay slips, permits, or any other documents required by Israeli law.

Such documents would provide evidence linking the workers to the Israeli-citizen employer on whose behalf they work. Without them, it is extremely difficult for Palestinians working in settlements to demand their rights under Israeli labor laws that apply to them, including the minimum wage law.

Some Palestinian workers, often with the help of the Israeli rights group that filed the Supreme Court case, Kav LaOved (Worker's Hotline), have sued Israeli settlers, usually to obtain the severance pay legally due them when they were made redundant.

Frightened to push legitimate claims for fear of 'black-listing'

However, cases where Palestinian workers have pursued their cases in court are rare. Even in cases where Palestinian workers can produce evidence documenting their claims, many reach an agreement with their erstwhile settler-employer and receive less than they allege they are owed.

Several Palestinian workers told us that they feared to push for their rights, because they were aware of cases of Palestinian workers who successfully sued their employers, demanding their legal rights, only to find that their employer then warned other settlers not to hire them, or their children.

One Palestinian man said that after two workers he knew had won court cases against settler employers, "no one would hire them" or their sons; another agricultural worker said he agreed to receive less severance pay from his employer than he was owed by law, for fear that he or his children would be "blacklisted" from working in settlements.

The International Labor Organization, Israeli and Palestinian rights groups have also reported the "blacklisting" by settlers of Palestinians who seek their rights in court.

Third State and business responsibilities

Other states and multilateral organizations have criticized Israel's unlawful policies in the Jordan Valley, but without apparent effect. For example, the International Labor Organization has repeatedly expressed concern about abuses against Palestinian child workers in the settlement agricultural sector and the lack of labour inspections, but this prompted no improvements.

Israel has continued to thwart efforts by internationally funded humanitarian agencies to assist Palestinians in the area, and had issued demolition orders or orders to stop construction work against 39 Palestinian schools, serving 4,500 students, in areas of the West Bank under its exclusive control as of 2013.

In August 2013, for instance, Israeli forces dragged a French diplomat out of a truck carrying emergency shelters intended for a Jordan Valley community that Israel had razed, threw non-lethal 'flash-bang' grenades at other diplomats and journalists, and confiscated the shelters.

The Israeli military's confiscation and destruction of humanitarian assistance in the Jordan Valley is so extensive that in 2014 the International Committee of the Red Cross decided to stop providing emergency shelter assistance to Palestinian victims of demolitions there.

Meanwhile, foreign countries' ongoing trade relationships with Israeli settlements have helped to sustain settlement-based businesses, thus undermining these governments' humanitarian as well as political efforts to support Palestinians and the Palestinian economy.

Some European states are among the main donors of humanitarian assistance to Palestinians in the Jordan Valley, yet in 2012, the last date for which figures are available, European countries imported goods and produce from Israeli settlements in the West Bank estimated to be worth 15 times more than the goods they imported from Palestinians in the West Bank and Gaza.

EU importing $300 million of settlement produce per year

Based on EU data and Israeli figures provided to the World Bank, as of 2012, the EU imported an estimated $300 million from settlements and $19.6 million from the West Bank and Gaza. For citations, see International Federation for Human Rights et al., 'Trading Away Peace: How Europe helps sustain illegal Israeli settlements' (2012), p. 6, notes 8 and 9.

Israel controls all exports from Palestinian territory, and effectively requires most Palestinian businesses to use Israeli exporters. Israeli law and practice does not distinguish settlement products from products made in Israel, and Israel exports agricultural and other goods produced in settlements located in the West Bank under the 'Made in Israel' and 'Product of Israel' labels.

Israel does not publish disaggregated figures for the export destination of settlement-grown produce, but based on news reports, and information from settlement and company websites, Europe is the main export market, with some agricultural exports to the US by Israeli companies that work in settlements in the Jordan Valley.

The EU has moved to exclude Israeli settlement products from the preferential tariff treatment provided to Israeli goods under the EU-Israel Association Agreement.

However, under a 'Technical Arrangement' to the Agreement, Israel in practice bundles settlement products together with Israeli goods for export to Europe and claims tariff-free status for the entire shipment.

The Arrangement places the burden of distinguishing eligible Israeli products and excluding ineligible settlement goods on European importers, who must do so by scrutinizing the postal codes designating the origin of each batch.

Seventeen EU member states have issued advice to businesses that they needed to consider the legal, financial and reputational risks of involvement with settlement trade, but have not instructed businesses to end such trade. The US in practice continues to grant preferential treatment to Israeli settlement products under the US-Israel Free Trade Agreement.

EU and USA turning a blind eye to abuses

The EU offers trade incentives to developing countries that take steps to combat child labor, but has not undertaken to restrict trade in products made with child labor, including products from Israeli agricultural settlements.

The US Department of Labor maintains and publishes a list of more than 350 products from foreign countries that are produced with the use of forced labor or child labor in other countries, but has not included Israeli settlement products on the list.

With Israel showing no sign that it will abide by its international legal obligations as an occupying power to dismantle civilian settlements in occupied territory, it is incumbent on other states to take measures to ensure that they do not contribute to or benefit from Israel's continuing violation of international humanitarian law, including the Fourth Geneva Convention of 1949, and international human rights law.

The Fourth Geneva Convention specifically prohibits the transfer of an occupying power's civilian population into the occupied territory, while several international human rights conventions prohibit discrimination and guarantee children's rights.

Given the widespread, discriminatory abuses against Palestinian children in Israeli settlements that this report documents, as well as Israel's continuing violation of international law as it relates to occupation, foreign states where businesses are domiciled that trade with Israel, should insist that Israeli authorities and exporters clearly distinguish between products that derive from settlements and those produced within Israel.

States that enter into trade agreements with Israel should instruct businesses domiciled in their jurisdictions not to import agricultural or other products that derive from Israeli settlements and to formally certify their compliance with this requirement. Businesses should not provide products or services that support Israeli agricultural settlements.



This article is based on extracts from the Human Rights Watch report 'Ripe for Abuse - Palestinian Child Labor in Israeli Agricultural Settlements in the West Bank', published in April 2015.


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