Jerusalem24 – The concept of childhood has remained unchanged as defined by the Convention on the Rights of the Child in Article No. 6. The article states that every human being under the age of eighteen; unless he/she/they attain the age of maturity earlier, under the law applicable to them.
Adolescence is the stage of transition from childhood to youth, a complex period of transformation that extends over stages. The first of which is early adolescence at the age of 11 and the last at the beginning of 20. Between these two definitions are details that refine and build the child’s personality.
However, nine children from the village of Aqraba, southeast of Nablus, fell victim to a new definition imposed by difficult economic conditions. These conditions which made them workers in an illegal Israeli settlement under international law, and lost their lives on the way back from work in settlement of Tomer, located in the north of the Jordan Valley, following a tragic traffic accident.
Although Palestinian law prohibits the employment of children under the age of fifteen, It is allowed for children aged 15-17 years to work under certain conditions. That the jobs are not dangerous, that the working hours are short, and that children undergo a medical examination every 6 months.
Work in Israeli settlements is criminalized, and anyone who violates the provisions of this article are fined with at least 1000 JOD (1,410 USD) and no more than 2000 JOD (2,820 USD). However, official Palestinian authorities do not provide an alternative for those who are forced to work in settlements with salaries greater than what workers receive in the West Bank.
The deteriorating economic conditions contributed to the spread of school dropouts and child labor, according to the data of the Palestinian Central Bureau of Statistics. The number of school students for the academic year 2019/2020 in Palestine reached about 1.309 million students. The dropout rate in 2019 was about 0.9% among males, compared to 0.6% among females.
According to Mounir Kleibo, International Labor Organization (ILO) Representative in the Palestinian Territories, around 120,000 students have deserted their schools during the COVID-19 pandemic.
Jordan Valley settlements: the bitter opportunity
According to the representative of the ILO in the Palestinian Territories, the Israeli labor market despite its disadvantages is considered attractive and tempting. It provides a higher financial return than the Palestinian market, which makes workers overlook the amount of violations they are exposed to. In some settlements, children between the ages of nine and sixteen are employed, for little pay compared to the minimum wage in Israel.
There are 32 settlements in the Jordan valley, 22 of them are agricultural ones where the number of workers varies according to the season.
According to statistics from the Ma’an Center for Development, there are 20 thousand Palestinians working in these settlements. 5.5% of whom are children aged 13-16 years old and work from 7 to 8 hours a day. This in violation of Israeli law that criminalizes the labor of children. These children work with a daily wage of 60-100 shekels per day, roughly a third of the minimum wage for an Israeli worker.
A new report issued by the International Trade Union Confederation revealed flagrant exploitation of Palestinian laborers working inside Israel and in the illegal Israeli settlements on Palestinian lands.
The report, titled “Workers’ Rights in Crisis: Palestinian workers in Israel and the settlements,” stated that it was time to end the exploitation of Palestinian workers.
The report reveals the root causes of the suffering of Palestinian workers: low wages, poor occupational health and safety, humiliation at the border crossings to enter Israel, gaps in social protection, and the repressive labor broker system that many workers are still forced to use.
Accordingly, the crimes of the brokers and the Israeli settlements is twofold. There is the employment of children working in settlements while underage and secondly, working in areas where work is prohibited and illegal; which is accompanied by long hours and low wages.
Discrimination, low wages, and exploitation
According to the Oslo Accords, most the Palestinian territories in the Jordan Valley are classified as “Area C.” This means that they are under complete Israeli control. In 2014, the World Bank estimated that the Israeli occupation, its restrictions on movement and trade cost the Palestinians losses equivalent to about 4.3 Billion US Dollars.
Palestinian employment would also increase by 35% if the occupation of these areas ends. Meanwhile, the number of workers in Israeli settlements and associated industrial areas in the West Bank is estimated at 23 thousand people.
A report issued by the International Trade Union Confederation in the second quarter of last year revealed a flagrant exploitation of Palestinian workers working inside Israel and in the illegal Israeli settlements on Palestinian lands.
The report emphasized that high unemployment rates in the West Bank and Gaza Strip leave Palestinians with few alternatives than to find jobs in Israel and settlements, where more than 130,000 people are trying to earn a living.
The report called for stopping discrimination against Palestinian workers, granting them their basic rights, ensuring public safety means and in addition to adequate oversight that would safeguard workers’ rights.
The report emphasized that the working conditions of women and children alike in the settlements do not include any protective requirements.
In the settlement farms, toxic pesticides are sprayed on the crops while the children and women work in harvesting or trimming trees without wearing appropriate protective clothing, which shows the extent of the Israeli employers’ neglect as they aim to reduce production costs. Which puts the lives of workers at immediate and constant danger and with the onset of the COVID-19 pandemic; these workers were left vulnerable to infection directly with the virus.
The collapse of the agricultural economy in the Jordan Valley led to mass unemployment forcing residents to move to nearby urban regions in Areas A and B. Leading many residents to work as cheap labor for Israeli settlers, often on confiscated lands previously owned by their families.
Hundreds of children and about 5,000 women (there is no reliable figure) work in the illegal Israeli settlements. 45% of them are in agriculture and most of them do not have work permits, work contracts or even direct contact with their employer. Making them vulnerable to poor working conditions, financial extortion and exposure to physical as well as verbal abuse.
Role of the Palestinian Authority
A spokesman for the Palestinian Ministry of Labor, Rami Mehdawi, confirmed that the ministry has taken a set of measures to prosecute brokers, and transferred 55 of them to the judiciary in the years of 2020-2021.
Mehdawi pointed out that the Ministry of Labor dealt with the cases of 352 juveniles and more than 50 children in the West Bank during the year 2021. They also have implemented a process to monitor the working conditions of juveniles in various facilities every six months. While the Ministry considers work in the settlements as illegal, the majority of violations against child workers take place there.
National mourning and the criminalization of child labor in the settlements will not protect them from many transgressions. In the absence of any strategic national plan that guarantees the protection of their rights and the application of laws, the phenomenon of child labor will continue.
What next then?
The tragic incident that led to the loss of the nine children brought the file of child labor in the settlements to the fore again and revealed the extent of the shortcomings in dealing with this issue. We do not even have approximate figures for the number of children working in the settlements and the nature of their working conditions.
Until a firmer and clearer strategy is applied to control the phenomenon of child labor in settlements and the application of what the Basic Law stipulates against brokers, the deteriorating economic conditions will remain an evasive path exploited by brokers and paid for by children.