Local and int’l pressure forces employer to recognize Palestinian workers’ rights

The Israeli NGO Kav LaOved reports on an extraordinary victory for Palestinian workers who are employed in a factory based in an Israeli settlement in the occupied West Bank.

It’s a story of how Palestinian workers teamed up with Kav LaOved and the media in Sweden to compel their employer not only to show them respect at work, but actually doubled or tripled their wages.  Read the full story below.

Multi-Culturalism at the Soda Club Factory
by: Salwa Alenat, Kav LaOved

Improving the working conditions for Palestinian factory workers in the settlements is proving to be long and difficult.

The vast majority of Israeli employers in the settlements are able to easily ignore the law since the authorities are not stringent about enforcing Israeli labor laws, and the workers are in a very disadvantaged position compared to their employers.

In cases where workers complain or sue their employers for violating labor laws, they are often exposed to threats of dismissal, dismissal, and the annulment of their work permits.

Soda Club’s readiness to comply with the Israeli labor laws with regard to its Palestinian employees is considered an exception to the rule.

This responsiveness would not be implemented were it not for the pressure placed on Soda Club in Sweden by the media, which led to a real change on the ground. The Soda Club factory is an example of the power of the press and of workers, who fight to protect their place of employment, despite that place being a controversial place because of its location in the Occupied Territories.

The Soda club factory is located in the industrial area of Mishor Adumim, near the Palestinian villages and cities of Azaria, Abu Dis, Hazma, and Jericho, where most of the workers come from. In 2008, the Palestinian workers were employed via contractors.

They were given meager salaries, between 1,700 and 2,200 shekels for 12 hour work days, 22 days a month. Those salaries didn’t even come close to minimum wage. Furthermore, the worker’s did not receive pay slips or the legally required social benefits.

The workers turned to Kav LaOved to ask for help regarding their work terms. They reported the degrading treatment they received at the factory and the excessive security checks that they were required to pass at the entry to the factory.

In addition, the workers described the sense of injustice they felt when comparing their own work conditions to those of their Israeli colleagues employed at the same factory, most of whom are immigrants from the former Soviet Union.

In April 2008, following several unheeded appeals to the contractor to increase the workers’ salaries, the workers decided to hold a protest at the factory, in the hope that the factory supervisors would understand their situation and intervene. This protest led to a quarrel among the workers themselves, as a result of which about half the workers were fired.

The workers who were fired sought a way to return to work and explain their situation. They explained to representatives of Kav LaOved that they were willing to work for any wage, and that it was actually those workers who were not fired, who are the ones demanding better work conditions.

At a time when the Israeli press was apathetic to the plight of the Palestinian workers in the territories, the Swedish media provoked strong public reaction by revealing that an international corporation like Soda Club had not only placed its factory in an Israeli settlement, but that it was also regularly infringing the rights of its Palestinian workers.

In December 2008, a few weeks after the Swedish press had publicized the story, the CEO of Soda Club in Israel, Mr. Daniel Birenbaum, met with Kav LaOved representatives. In the meeting three demands were discussed:

1. Retroactive payment of minimum wage differences for 2008,

2. rehiring of the workers who had been fired,

3. equal application of Israeli labor law on Israeli and Palestinian workers.

The factory representatives’ position was that since they had paid the correct, legally required sums to the contractor, they were had no liability, and had no intention of making up the differences to the workers.

After correspondence between Kav LaOved and the factory management, 17 workers who had been fired were rehired. After talking to the workers, we learned that the factory began paying them in accordance with Israeli labor law, and that they were finally getting pay slips.

The workers say they are content and that their salaries increased to two or three times as their previous salaries. They no longer feel discriminated against. Furthermore, they have received Soda Club work garments and attendance cards, the security checks are no longer degrading as they were in the past, and they are allowed to eat in the factory’s cafeteria along with all the other workers.

Birenbaum, the factory’s CEO, describes the factory as a place that embraces all cultures, and in April 2009 even had a party celebrating the factory’s multi-cultural makeup: Sudanese, Ethiopian, Russian and Palestinian.

Haaretz newspaper covered the event under the title: “only in Israel, only in passover, a celebration of co-existence and multiculturalism just across the Green Line”. It is possible that this was an attempt to improve the company’s image, which had been harmed by the earlier exposure.

Some of the Palestinian workers, who had not registered for the event, were only allowed to participate for one hour, and then returned to work while others continued to celebrate multi-culturalism in their name.