Jordan Valley, occupied Palestinian territories - Small, frail bodies move systematically in the orchards, picking and cleaning fruit and vegetables, placing them into containers, before finally loading them onto trucks. Like clockwork, every day between 5am and 2pm, these Palestinian children work inside illegal settlements in the Jordan Valley to help their families, having left the idea of school far behind.
Ismai'l is just 16, but dropped out of high school and turned to work in the settlement of Argaman to provide for his 12-member family, and to help his older brother pay for his university tuition. He works in the fields for up to eight hours, sometimes seven days a week, depending on the season.
"I want to continue going to school in the future but hopefully... before I become too old to finish," said Isma'il, who hails from the Jordan Valley village of Al Zubeidat. "Now I cannot go back because money for the family is our necessity and this is what needs to be done."
The number of Palestinians working inside Jordan Valley settlements varies between 10,000 and 20,000 depending on the season, according to Ma'an Development Centre, a Ramallah-based capacity-building organisation. Children make up between five and ten percent of these workers.
These child labourers either live in Jordan Valley villages such as Al Fasayil, Al Jiftlik and Al Zubeidat, or hail from the rest of the West Bank, notably the south Hebron Hills, where living conditions are dire, unemployment is high and water is scarce. Most often, the children follow in the footsteps of family members in the same line of work.
Leaving school behind
The child workers drop out of high school at the age of 15 or 16 because settlement jobs most often provide the only means of survival for them and their families.
"Most kids look at working in settlements as the only option to get a better life," said Chris Michael, advocacy coordinator at Ma'an Development Centre. "There are many cases of men in their thirties or forties who have been working in settlements since they were 14."
The fact that most of the Jordan Valley can't be developed... forces these children to say: 'This is my life, my father can't work, my brother is at university, so working in settlements is our only means of survival.'
The high drop-out rate is partially attributed to the Jordan Valley's weak educational system, hampered by a lack of adequate infrastructure and a large number of students in each due to Israeli restrictions on building.
According to a Ma'an report, "approximately 10,000 children living in Area 'C' started the 2011/12 school year learning in tents, caravans, or tin shacks which lack protection from the heat and cold. Furthermore, nearly a third of Area 'C' schools lack adequate water and sanitation facilities".
The report, Parallel Realities: Israeli Settlements and Palestinian communities in the Jordan Valley, also found that many of the schools had received demolition orders, or have pending stop-work orders from the Israeli authorities.
Children end up working in settlements, either by request from family members or by their own accord. Muhammad, 16, is from Al Fasayil and works in the nearby settlement of Tomer, where he picks and packages sweet peppers in the summer, and works the date plantations in the winter.
Muhammad ended up dropping out of school because he felt that making money was a better option than finishing high school. "School was not equipping me for my future," he said. "There are many people who even go to university and don't find work, so it will not be any different for me."
The Jordan Valley is particularly susceptible to this phenomenon, with 95 per cent of the land is designated Area C, which under the Oslo Accords, places it under Israel's full administrative and security control. This area is either peppered with settlements and closed-off military zones, or earmarked for "nature reserves".
"You have a lot of Palestinian villages that have agricultural land in Area C, which means Palestinian families need permits to get to it, that there are certain hours they're allowed to go, and that they're only permitted to use certain equipment, all meaning they cannot compete with the Israeli settlers for exports - in terms of pricing or quality," Michael said. "So they end up leasing their land and leaving for work in the nearby settlements."
The Jordan Valley has the potential to be the breadbasket of the West Bank because of its fertile land and abundant water resources. But very little land or access to aquifers are available to Palestinians, who are confined to only about five percent of the territory - making it difficult to cultivate or develop crops. Harsh living conditions that are a direct result of Israeli land confiscations, control of water resources and the separation wall eventually push Palestinians to work inside illegal settlements.
Defying labour laws
The Jordan Valley is home to approximately 60,000 Palestinians, while 9,500 Israelis live in the area in 37 settlements, according to the UN Office for the Coordination of Humanitarian Affairs. Once inside these settlements, child workers clean, lift boxes, pick and package vegetables and fruit, working in temperatures that can reach 50° Celsius in the summer, and earning between 50-90NIS ($14-$25) for an eight or nine-hour work day.
Their meagre earnings constitute 25-50 per cent of what they are entitled to under Israeli labour laws, which include a minimum wage of 23.12NIS ($5.75) per hour, as well as healthcare and paid sick leave - none of which is afforded to Palestinian workers. But according to Kav LaOved, an Israeli workers' rights group, "Israeli employers in the settlements and industrial zones in the West Bank continue to routinely deny the rights of their Palestinian workers on a much larger scale... This gross violation of Palestinians' labour rights by Israeli employers in the West Bank is made possible because there is almost no law enforcement against violators".
A spokesman for Israel's Coordinator of Government Activities in the Territories - an Israeli military office that deals with civilian issues in the occupied territories - said they were not familiar with the issue and that no claims regarding the employment of children had been submitted to them.
"We emphasise that the Civil Administration does not issue working permits for Palestinians under the age of 18. The Ministry of Industry, Trade and Labor is in charge of the enforcement of this kind of phenomena," it said in a statement.
The ministry, however, said it was not authorised to enforce all labour laws within what it called the "disputed" territories of the West Bank, both as it concerns "Palestinians and non-Palestinian residents".
"Currently, the legal situation is such that the ministry is authorised to enforce only the Minimum Wage Law (1987) and the Foreign Workers Law (1991)," a ministry statement said. "The main bulk of the Israeli labour laws are not applicable to the residents (Jews or Arab–Israelis or Palestinians) living in the West Bank."
The ministry said it was working closely with the ministry of justice "to change the current situation by amending the relevant legislation administered by the Civil Administration in such a way that the labour laws could be enforced within the Israeli controlled parts of the West Bank. We are hoping to see a breakthrough that would enhance our law enforcement with the legal authority required for the implementation of all labour laws in the Israeli controlled parts of the West Bank".
Settlers 'claim ignorance'
The Palestinian General Federation of Trade Unions - a national trade union representing Palestinian workers - called the phenomenon a "complicated problem" that requires concerted efforts by many organisations. "We have launched a campaign to raise awareness about this issue," said Khawla Elayyan, who heads the union's child labour department. "We have held meetings with families, students and local bodies to resolve this issue. But there aren't enough official inspectors to ensure children aren't being taken advantage of. And we have no jurisdiction in Israeli settlements."
Most often, children working in settlements do so through a Palestinian waseet, or "go-between", who collects a one-time or monthly fee in exchange for finding work for them.
"The waseet goes after kids because he knows he can exploit them," Michael explained. "So this is another way the settlers can get away with it; they can claim ignorance by laying responsibility at the door of their "labour organiser'."
Children who aren't from the area are forced to live in squalid conditions in humid storage units, sometimes 20 at a time, Michael added. "The fact that most of the Jordan Valley can't be developed, even though Palestinians are 85 per cent of the population there, forces these children to say: 'This is my life, my father can't work, my brother is at university, so working in settlements is our only means of survival.' That's the general mindset."
Follow Dalia Hatuqa on Twitter: @DaliaHatuqa
Source: Al Jazeera