Israel's Jordan Valley regulation 'discriminatory'

A labour regulation affecting the lives of thousands of Palestinian workers has limited their access to courts.

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    Israel's Jordan Valley regulation 'discriminatory'
    Ismael Abu Rahmeh was ordered to pay a 1,000 shekel deposit after Israel's justice ministry imposed new terms on non-Israeli residents suing employers [Nigel Wilson/Al Jazeera]

    Jericho, occupied West Bank - In the dingy office of a trade union building on the outskirts of Jericho, Ismael Abu Rahmeh, a Palestinian worker, unfolded a receipt from an Israeli court for 1,000 shekels ($260).

    In early October, Abu Rahmeh paid the sum, a guarantee, after the Israeli labour court judge presiding over his case ordered him to cover the legal costs of his employer in the event that Abu Rahmeh lost the case. If the worker had not paid, the case that he had initially filed against his employer in 2015 would have been thrown out of court.

    "At first, I thought about dropping the case and not paying the amount," said Abu Rahmeh. "I was shocked. I didn't know what to do. But I decided I had to get the money from somewhere [to pay the guarantee so I could continue with the lawsuit]."

    The 1,000-shekel guarantee was part of a new regulation issued by Israel's justice ministry last August. Before the regulation, a worker launching legal proceedings paid a regular court fee, which is standard in the Israeli judicial system. The sum is ordered by a judge, so the amount can vary. 

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    [The regulation] has a political goal and the goal here is to prevent Palestinian workers from going to court, suing their Israeli employers and obliging their employers, through court orders, to pay them their full wages, minimum wages, vacations and all their rights based on Israeli labour law.

    Sawsan Zaher, lawyer with Adalah

    According to the legal rights group Adalah, more than 55,000 Palestinian workers will be affected by the new regulation, which obligates Israeli labour court judges to order non-Israeli residents, including Palestinians from the occupied West Bank and international migrant workers, to deposit a financial guarantee at the beginning of a lawsuit against an Israeli employer. The sum would cover the employer's court costs.

    Israeli media labelled the regulation the "Jordan Valley regulation" because it was viewed by the press to be politically motivated to benefit settlers who operate businesses and employ non-Israeli workers in this part of the occupied West Bank.

    Israel's Justice Minister Ayelet Shaked, who imposed the regulation, is a senior member of Jewish Home, a pro-settlement party within Israel's governing coalition.

    "It has a political goal and the goal here is to prevent Palestinian workers from going to court, suing their Israeli employers and obliging their employers, through court orders, to pay them their full wages, minimum wages, vacations and all their rights based on Israeli labour law," said Sawsan Zaher, a lawyer with Adalah, the legal centre for Arab minority rights in Israel.

    The average wage in the Jordan Valley region outside of the settlements was 80 shekels ($21) a day in 2012, while the average wage in Israel and the settlements was around 407 shekels ($105) in the same year. Abu Rahmeh told Al Jazeera that he received 60 shekels ($16) for each six-hour shift on the Israeli settlement farm, and often worked two shifts a day.

    A combination of savings, working extra hours at his new job and sacrifices enabled Abu Rahmeh, who is partially deaf and communicates through a mix of speech and sign language, to gather the funds to pay the guarantee within the two-week timeframe set by the court.

    "It was such a large amount of money. I had to work for long hours in order to save the money to pay this amount. I had set aside money for medication but I had to use it for the case," he said.

    The Palestinian worker paid regular court fees of 850 shekels ($220) when he initiated the case in 2015.

    Abu Rahmeh told Al Jazeera that he had worked for the same Israeli employer on an agricultural settlement in the Jordan Valley for 13 years, but was dismissed in 2014 after he fell, injured his back and took time off to recover.

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    He described his work days as split between a morning shift from 6am to 12:30pm and an evening shift from 6pm until midnight, planting and picking fruits, vegetables and flowers on the Israeli-owned farm. He usually worked six days a week, but sometimes he would work seven straight days for months at a time depending on the season.

    Abu Rahmeh turned to the local Palestinian trade union in 2015 when he felt that his severance offer did not meet the minimum that he was entitled to under Israeli labour law. He said that his employer had offered him 6,000 shekels ($1,550) when he was fired, but after meeting with the Palestinian union, he filed a lawsuit against his employer claiming 30,000 shekels ($7,750) in severance pay, vacation pay and other entitlements.

    Abed Dari, a lawyer with Kav LaOved, an Israeli workers' rights NGO, said that he was aware of a handful of cases similar to Abu Rahmeh's where judges had ordered guarantees of 2,500 to 3,000 shekels ($650 to $775) for workers who lacked evidence that they were employed on Israeli settlements. Those cases were then settled without going through the court, he said.

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    Dari explained that Palestinians who worked in settlements in the Jordan Valley often worked without contracts and were paid in cash.

    "Most of the Palestinian workers who work in the Jordan Valley agricultural sector, most of them don't have any evidence that connects them to the work. There are no payslips. There are no permits, because most of the workers don't need to go inside the settlements; they work in the field," he told Al Jazeera.

    This lack of evidence means that they are more likely to be asked to pay the new financial guarantee if they take their employer to court, although the size of the guarantee is determined by the judge.

    "It really depends on the impression that the judge takes, not only from the personal interaction from the people [in the case] but also from reading the material and getting the impression of whether there is a case or not. So it is a very substantive issue, the financial guarantee, and Ayelet Shaked has dealt with it as if it is a technical thing," Zaher said.

    Along with Kav LaOved and the Association for Civil Rights in Israel, Adalah filed a joint petition to the Israeli Supreme Court in September, calling for the regulation to be cancelled.

    The groups said the regulation "constitutes a discriminatory, dangerous and arrogant rule which has resulted from pressure by employers who wish to continue to violate - unhindered - the rights of their weak employees," in the petition. Moreover, Zaher charged that the justice minister had abused her power by imposing the regulation unilaterally.

    "What Shaked did here, she not only misused the authority and even took a decision that she's not authorised to, but she also imposed on the judge an obligation that the legislature in other cases leaves to the discretion of the judge. We have a regulation that affects more than 55,000 Palestinian workers, which was initially confirmed in order to prevent, exclude and limit the access to courts of Palestinian workers," she said. 

    SOURCE: Al Jazeera


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