[L-I] Child Labor in Palestine: Children of a lesser God: Israeli labor marketactually employs 20,000 Palestinian children.
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Mon Oct 9 16:24:21 MDT 2000
"Israeli labor market actually employs 20,000 Palestinian children", says the
Children of a lesser God Published September 27, Vol. 7, No. 15
CHILD LABOR by Alessandra Antonelli
TWO CHILDREN stand at Al Ram Junction, north of Jerusalem, chatting loudly to
one another. About what - their homework? The next soccer match? Their favorite
cartoon? What do eight to10-year-old children talk about while waiting for a
traffic light to turn red?
The cars stop and both children move forward with alacrity. But they are not
rushing to school. They quickly weave amongst the cars pushing tissue boxes and
chewing gum packets beneath drivers' noses. "How much is it?" I ask in broken
Arabic. "Two shekels" answers the child.
I am glad he understands me. "What's your name?" I ask while pretending to
search for change in my purse. "Two shekels," the kid repeats. "What's your
name?" I ask again. "Two shekels," insists the child who is persistently looking
elsewhere. I'm not sure if he doesn't want to talk to me or if he simply is not
interested in any conversation besides the price of the merchandise he is
But there is no time for further questions. The traffic light has turned green
and the cars continue along to their morning destinations, while the two
children go back to the sidewalk and resume their discussion from the point
they left off.
I neither succeeded in learning their names nor in knowing the reason why they
were selling merchandise on a busy main road instead of being at school.
This is just one story of the 34,000 Palestinian children who prepare for work
every morning instead of preparing for school. These alarming figures provided
by the Palestinian Central Bureau of Statistics' Annual Report (1999) on the
welfare Palestinian children, dealt with children from five to 17 years of age.
The report sets the percentage of working children at 6.3 percent, though the
survey acknowledges its own shortcomings as it is unable to monitor children who
work in family businesses or in informal activities such as taking care of
younger siblings or helping about the house. For similar reasons, the profile of
specifically female child labor statistics is difficult to determine.
The map of child labor drawn by the Palestinian section of Defense for Children
International ([DCI], a non governmental organization active in documenting and
advocating children's rights), shows that the primary reason which forces
children into the labor market at an early age is the precarious economic
condition of the Palestinian Territories.
A 1997 DCI study found that 90.4 percent of child laborers come from families
which total seven or more members. 45.2 of parents of these families have
education levels between one and six years. Furthermore in the majority of the
cases, the house where they live is overcrowded and rented. Eighty-seven percent
of working children did not end up finishing the 9th grade.
A UNICEF study on "Child Labor in the West Bank and Gaza" reveled that 52
percent of working children enter the market under direct demand of their
families and that in 35 percent of the cases, the fathers choose the jobs for
Working children are not generally perceived as something unusual in Palestinian
society. Harsh economic conditions, poor education levels and strong cultural
traditions transform the child who leaves school to go to work to help his
family, into a little hero -- a mature little man that knows how to contribute
to the well-being of his siblings.
"For many families there is no other choice. The father is either dead, an
invalid or jailed and the family's survival is necessary to send children to
work," explained Riad Harar, social programs coordinator at DCI.
It is however a pittance of economic support. According to PCBS the average
daily wage for these children is US$8. Paid sick leaves and holidays is a luxury
granted to 15 percent of working children while merely one percent are requested
any medical check up.
Children are a good business for employers. "Employers have many advantages in
employing a child: lower wages and in most cases, a lack of awareness of their
basic rights," explains George Abu Zuluf, executive director of DCI.
Particular cases of indigence, age and ignorance of existing human and labor
rights make children extremely vulnerable and easily exploitable. Old and
inadequate labor laws do not help either.
"We base our inspections on 35-year-old laws," says Buthaina Salem who is a
lawyer employed at the Minister of Labor inspection. "They date back to 1965 for
the West Bank which adopted the Jordanian legislation framework, and to 1964 for
Gaza which adopted the Egyptian one. The Israeli occupation in 1967 has made it
impossible for these laws to develop and change according to the changing
A new labor law was drafted after the establishment of the Palestinian
Authority. President Yasser Arafat signed it on May 1 of this year, but several
days later, due to 'inaccuracies', did not allow its publication making the law,
de facto invalid.
The new law would clearly define working children's rights. It establishes the
legal age to work at 16, the working hours at six (plus half an hour lunch
break), does not allow evening shifts, enforces annual health checks, and
prevents children from being employed in dangerous environments. What exactly is
considered hazardous is not specified by the law. This is left to the Ministry
of Labor to define.
That obsolete and outdated laws continue to be implemented helps to explain how
accidents such as the fire in a lighter factory in Hebron took place. In October
1999, a blaze caused by a 12-year-old child killed 15 Palestinian women. Five of
them were under 18. News reports following the blaze revealed that in that same
factory, children as young as nine years old were being employed.
The ministerial committee formed to investigate the matter failed to find anyone
responsible for the tragedy.
The dramatic Hebron accident illustrates the poor conditions beneath which most
children work. Too often minimum age, shift-times, numbers of working hours per
day and safety norms are not respected.
"I went in a factory that for security reasons should be banned for the entrance
of children. I found a number of them working there instead," says Atef Sa'ad
media officer at the General Federation of Trade Unions in Palestine. "I
personally heard the owner whisper to some employees to get the boys out of the
Despite the fact that the present laws state that the minimum age of employment
is 14, a large number of children below this age are in fact regularly employed
in factories and other working places.
According to the International Labor Organization's 1997 report on child labor
in the West Bank and Gaza, children as young as eight years old work daily up to
12 hours. Besides working in places lacking the minimum safety and health
prerequisite, these children are easily subject to physical and psychological
"Labor, even in good conditions, has four main effects on children:
psychological, social, educational and physical", says Harar.
"To begin with, the child's self image is affected, often modifying the child's
value system. Money becomes the center of life because the child's activities
are focused on earning money."
"If the working environment is not violence-free, then the child learns to
return violence in response to violence, with serious consequences on his
behavioral system. He will imitate the gestures and language of his environment
which is often abusive" Harar goes on.
"If the child is working during the post-school hours, tiredness affects his
ability to concentrate on his homework. These children suffer from educational
disorders that prevent them from achieving a proper education and high grades."
"Finally, their body can be dangerously exposed to hazardous materials ranging
from various chemical to glass. They can also be asked to carry heady loads or
to move boxes with potentially dangerous material," Harar concludes.
The Minister of Labor's reply to these issues is that it can "only proceed
according to the law." "During inspections, we are not allowed to talk with
children under 14 years of age," says Salem. "When we notice younger children
[working] all we can do is warn the owner of the possible action we can take
The action that could be taken against a deceitful employer is minimal: no jail
sentence with the maximum fine amounting to 50 Jordanian Dinars - barely US $70.
Tradition and culture also play an important role in "safeguarding" employers.
In most cases once evidence of mistreatment or abuse is shown, families prefer
to settle the question directly between them and the employers. Over a cup of
coffee, the two parties get to an economic agreement to compensate the child.
No substantial deterrent exists to stop exploitative employers from hiring
"If questioned why they have hired young children, employers are quick to assure
that the tasks the kids are assigned to are very easy and not dangerous. But it
is impossible to ascertain if this is true. There is not enough monitoring to
verify if, at any moment, children are asked to do other kinds of jobs," says
Both DCI and the General Federation of Trade Unions call on the Ministry of
Labor to enforce its monitoring efforts.
"This year child labor was one of our priorities," says Salem. "But we only have
28 inspectors in 11 district for a total of 14,501 businesses. These employees
are requested to inspect no less than 40 working places per month."
"Budget problems" at the Ministry of Labor causes it not to be able to afford to
employ and train more personnel. In fact, according to its inspection plan,
businesses up to five laborers are not even subject to inspection.
Atef Sa'ad does not like to define child labor as merely a phenomenon. According
to him it is a problem, and as such, needs to be addressed.
"There is not a short or long-term solution to the child labor problem until the
Palestinian economic situation improves," he says.
And the Palestinians' economic situation is strictly tied to the Israeli
occupation. Prior to the occupation, child labor was an existent reality in the
Palestinian Territories. However, following 1967, the situation worsened and,
according to one study carried out by UNICEF, a correlation was drawn between
the closure of borders between Israel and the Palestinian Territories and the
increase in child labor.
The problem does not just exist however when there are closures. Even when
Israel opens its borders to Palestinian workers, it opens them up to children as
well. A coordinated effort of DCI's Palestine and Israel branches, along with
trade unions of both countries, revealed that the Israeli labor market actually
employs 20,000 Palestinian children. One third of them work in settlements.
Child labor easily becomes an exploitative chain. "The first level of
exploitation is the lower wages, which in Israel range between 30 and 50 shekels
per day. It is so low because part of the money that the Israeli employers pay,
goes to the broker who provides the laborers. Plus the actual agreement between
the trade unions concerns legal Palestinian workers in Israel. Children,
unfortunately belong to the 'illegal' category, so they cannot be protected."
According to DCI officers, a coordinated effort of human rights associations,
trade unions and the ministries of labor, education and social affairs is the
only viable path that could lead to solving the issue of regularization of child
labor, if (as most of these bodies admit), the outlawing of child labor is not
PCBS's year 2000 annual report suggests the introduction of a system that
ensures economic support to families with limited incomes. This financial help
would lessen the need for the children from dropping out of school to go to
The official publication of the new labor law could also dramatically improve
the situation and give a better future to the over 7,200 children still seeking
Published 27/9/00 ©Palestine Report
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Department of Political Science
SUNY at Albany
Nelson A. Rockefeller College
135 Western Ave.; Milne 102
Albany, NY 12222
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