Hundreds of Palestinian children work on Israeli settlement farms in the occupied West Bank, the majority located in the Jordan Valley. This report documents 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. Children whom Human Rights Watch interviewed said they begin work as early as 5:30 or 6 a.m. 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. Some children 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 Human Rights Watch 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.
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, and 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 children had been stung by scorpions while working in settlers’ fields.
Temperatures in the fields often exceed 40 degrees Celsius in summer (over 100 degrees Fahrenheit) and can be as high as 50 degrees Celsius (122 degrees Fahrenheit) 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 Human Rights Watch 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.
To research this report, Human Rights Watch 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 Human Rights Watch interviewed said they took the work due to a lack of alternative jobs and because of 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 whom Human Rights Watch interviewed said they had dropped out of school. Teachers and principals told Human Rights Watch that children often dropped out around Grade 8, or age 14. Of the 33 children that Human Rights Watch 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.” 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, and instead, allow Palestinians 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.
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. 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.”
© 2015 Human Rights Watch