Ramallah, occupied West Bank – F, a 13-year-old Palestinian boy from al-Fasayil, an impoverished village near the West Bank city of Jericho, used to work in the nearby Israeli settlement of Petzael on weekends, earning 50 shekels ($12.50) a day. He would start at 5am and work until 3pm, his wage was reduced by a Palestinian middleman who would bring him to the farming settlement.
“Work is better than school,” F said. “My family needs me to work. There are six in my family. I’m the [eldest] boy, and me and my father work.”
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The youngster is one of many children being used to grow, harvest and pack agricultural produce on Israeli settlement farms, Human Rights Watch (HRW) said in a report released on Monday. The settlements pay these underage Palestinians low wages and subject them to hazardous working conditions, the group said.
The report, “Ripe for Abuse: Palestinian Child Labor in Israeli Agricultural Settlements in the West Bank”, documents cases of children as young as 11 working on some settlement farms, often in high temperatures. “They carry heavy loads, are exposed to hazardous pesticides, and in some cases have to pay themselves for medical treatment for work-related injuries or illness,” the report said.
The children, whose families are often poor and have few resources, are typically introduced to work on farms by a Palestinian middleman or waseet who deducts from their wages. Many leave their studies behind in the hopes of providing for their parents and siblings.
“Israel’s settlements are profiting from rights abuses against Palestinian children,” said Sarah Leah Whitson, the group’s Middle East and North Africa director. “Children from communities impoverished by Israel’s discrimination and settlement policies are dropping out of school and taking on dangerous work because they feel they have no alternatives, while Israel turns a blind eye.”
For its report, the group interviewed 38 children and 12 adults who work on seven settlement farms in the Jordan Valley area. This area, where most large agricultural settlements are located, comprises 30 percent of the West Bank.
If you sit down while you’re working ... the supervisor will come and tell you to stand up and not take a break. We don’t get bathrooms - we get permission from the supervisor to go out in the fields.
Almost all the children interviewed for the report said they felt they had no viable alternative to the settlement farm work in order to support their families. Poverty rates for Palestinians in the Jordan Valley have reached 33.5 percent, among the highest in the West Bank.
“Israel has allocated 86 percent of the land in the Jordan Valley to settlements, and provides vastly greater access to water from the aquifer beneath the valley to the settlement agricultural industry than to the Palestinians living in the valley,” the report said.
While official statistics are unavailable, both Palestinians and Israeli development and labour rights groups “estimate that hundreds of children work in Israeli agricultural settlements year-round, and that their numbers increase during peak harvesting times”, according to HRW.
The United Nations estimates that 24 percent of all Palestinian workers in the West Bank’s Area C, including the Jordan Valley, work in settlements. Approximately 15 percent of Palestinian workers in settlements are children, and up to half of those are 16 years or younger, the report said, basing its statistics on interviews with trade unionists and labour rights lawyers.
Most of the children interviewed said they began working on Israeli agricultural settlements at age 13 or 14. Some as young as 11 work there on a part-time basis. Many told the group they were pressured to work without taking breaks.
“If you sit down while you’re working … the supervisor will come and tell you to stand up and not take a break,” said 15-year-old I A, who dropped out of school after 8th grade. “We don’t get bathrooms – we get permission from the supervisor to go out in the fields.”
The 38 Palestinian children interviewed by HRW received an average hourly wage of 10 shekels ($2.70), or 70 shekels ($19) per day. Some took home 50 shekels ($12.5) after paying for transportation to and from the agricultural settlements they worked on. In Israel and the settlements, the average daily wage was approximately 407 shekels ($110) per working day in 2012 – the latest date for which figures are available.
Some children said they were paid late, or not at all. Those who complained or tried to sue were often blacklisted. In 2014, the International Labour Organisation (ILO) described “an apparently coordinated practise by Israeli settlement employers in the Jordan Valley of blacklisting Palestinian workers who have lodged complaints of labour rights violations”.
On the farms, the children said they experienced spells of nausea and dizziness. Some said they handled pesticides that gave them skin rashes, breathing difficulties and sore eyes. Those who passed out from heat strokes – working in temperatures exceeding 40 degrees Celsius outdoors during the summer – said they were not provided with medical care, the report documented.
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Israeli labour laws are clear about prohibiting youth from carrying heavy loads, working in high temperatures and working with hazardous pesticides. But these laws do not extend to Palestinians, including children, who work inside Israeli settlements in the West Bank.
Israeli authority inspections of working conditions for Palestinians on Israeli settlement farms are few and far between, HRW said. “The Israeli defence, economy, and labour ministries all say that they are studying how to apply more labour protections for Palestinians working in settlements, but that in the meantime no authority has a clear mandate to enforce regulations,” the group said in the report.
Israeli military authorities acknowledge that they do not issue work permits for Palestinians under 18 to work in settlements. But the farms the children work on are outside the guarded areas of settlements, and permits are not needed to get there.
Israel’s economy ministry did not immediately respond to Al Jazeera’s request for comment on the HRW report.
In a statement, the Coordinator of Government Activities in the Territories noted: “The issue of employment of minors in Area C of Judea and Samaria [West Bank] by Israeli employers is currently being evaluated within the framework of ongoing administrative work, including the application of Israeli labor laws on Israeli employers in Area C of Judea and Samaria [West Bank].”
The HRW report noted that the produce Palestinian children grow, harvest, and pack is often exported to Europe and the US. While the European Union “has moved to exclude Israeli settlement products from the preferential tariff treatment it provides to Israeli goods … [it has] not instructed businesses to end such trade,” the group said.
HRW also advised the US Department of Labor to add Israeli settlement produce to a list that identifies goods produced with the use of forced or child labour in foreign countries. “The settlements are the source of daily abuses, including against children,” HRW’s Whitson said. “Other countries and businesses should not benefit from or support them.”