Palestinian Child Labour in Illegal Israeli Settlements

Another devastating effect of Israel's illegal settlements.

By Dorien Vanden Boer

At 5am each day, Nabeel wakes and goes to work. He leaves his house on foot, joining friends and colleagues as young as 10, on their way to the illegal settlement of Tomer. He is 13 years old, living in the Jordan Valley village of Al Fassayil. For Nabeel there is no other choice.

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Child labour is a serious problem in the Jordan Valley. The Palestinian Central Bureau of Statistics found more than 7,000 children between five and 17 were working there in 2008, the highest concentration in the Palestinian Territories. That figure has risen since.

The statistics don’t tell the full story, as there is no data for many of the children working secretly in settlements. The lack of information makes the problem difficult to deal with at a political level, even if the will existed to affect change.

The legal age for workers in Palestine was recently increased from 14 to 16, but this change has not materialised on the ground. Settlers avoid this law by recruiting through subcontractors, so that they have no direct contracts with minors, who have no official employee status or rights. Nonetheless, settlers are fully aware that children are working on their fields.

In 2007, the Israeli Ministry of Trade and Industry extended the minimum wage law to include Palestinians employed in Jewish settlements, but no authority enforces it. While the legal minimum wage in Israel is $5.51 an hour, Palestinians in settlements earn $2 an hour or less. For a day of eight hours, with only a half hour break they receive around 55 to 60 shekels ($15-16). The child workers are not insured and are given no holidays or sick leave. They often work on dangerous construction sites that do not comply with Israeli health & safety regulations. When the frequent accidents occur they receive no protection from their employer and are simply cast out.

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Youssef is the headmaster of the school in Fasayil. He tells me about his nephew who got badly injured after an accident with a tractor in one of the settlements. As he was not insured by his employer and nor was the tractor, he had no right to any compensation. His family received the 10,000 shekel hospital bill. Only through “the strong solidarity between families in the village,” were they were able to pay the hospital costs and avoid total impoverishment.

Although child labour is a large-scale problem in the occupied territories, little action is being taken by humanitarian groups. Iman Nijem, a programme manager of Save the Children UK, told us his NGO is the only one in Palestine working to address the problem. Their project is just a year old.

Iman feels the main reasons for the child labour epidemic relate to the occupation. In the Jordan Valley, movement restrictions are uniquely acute, as settlements comprise approximately 50% of its territory, in addition to closed military zones and ‘nature reserves’ that eat into Palestinian land. Water is also appropriated in vast quantities for use in settlements, leaving severely limited resources for Palestinian agriculture.

While Palestinian industry is handicapped and adults cannot earn a living, children are a solution. By sending them to work in the settlements they may earn a family enough to escape the worst ravages of poverty, although their cheap labour advances the expansion of the settlements which strangle the Palestinian population. It is short-term survival that causes long-term suffering.

Child labour in settlements is not confined to the Jordan Valley. Subcontractors in South Hebron were prosecuted this year for smuggling children at night to work in agriculture and construction for settlements. The employers themselves escaped criminal charges.

The legal system makes it easy to use child labour. In C areas of the West Bank, the Israeli military are the only law and are notoriously reluctant to prosecute Israeli settlers. The Ministry of Trade and Industry, which is responsible for the inspection of settlements in the West Bank, rarely does so, which it justifies by claiming a lack of resources.

Save the Children wants to develop a monitoring system for child labourers. Working together with the Palestinian Authority’s Ministry of Labour and Social Affairs the organisation hopes to establish a system that supervises children to ensure they are not involved in hazardous work or dropping out of school. The system would include vocational training for the children and awareness programs for the parents. A similar programme in 2003 had to be stopped due to a lack of funding. It is hoped this new scheme may finally expose the shocking and consistent abuse of children.

Learn more from the Jordan Valley Solidarity group
Originally published on Palestine Monitor.