Dates of Infamy

Grueling work, perched dangerously high above the ground for hours on end, with little respite and no possibility of taking care of certain bodily needs - such is the plight of Palestinian workers in some Jordan Valley date groves. But they are too frightened to complain.

By Gitit Ginat
Sep.14, 2006
Haaretz

PalestinianmancollectingdatesImagine a person. He might be a man over 40 years old, married, with children. Or he might be a teenager, who until recently was in school. Now perch him on top of a date palm that soars to a height of 10 or even 12 meters - the height of a three- or four-story building. Imagine this person sitting atop the tree for five, six, even seven hours a day. It's hot, but the heat is the least of his problems. Occasionally a strong wind blows, shaking the tree along with the person sitting on it. Scorpions and snakes come to visit sometimes, and ants wander freely over his body.

Now imagine what happens to this person when his body signals that it has some pressing need. Eating and drinking he does up there, on the tree. Urinating, too, if there's no other choice. But if the digestive tract has a more serious demand, lengthy, vociferous and humiliating negotiations ensue with the contractor below. Sometimes they end with the person remaining up in the tree and holding it in by force, no matter what.

How convenient to imagine this happening somewhere else - in Indonesia, say. But in October 2005, when Salva Alinat, a representative of Kav La'Oved (Hotline for the Protection of Workers' Rights), visited the offices of the trade union in Jericho, she heard complaints from workers in the date groves, who said that during the pruning season, in April and May, they had been forced to remain atop the trees throughout the day to save on breaks and to meet a daily quota. The story sounds incredible, but Alinat, who heard more and more complaints about the exploitation of Palestinian workers in Israeli settlements around Jericho, has no doubt that it's true. Four different teams of workers, each of them consisting of eight to 10 people, told her about the phenomenon.

For several months Alinat traveled to the union office in Jericho to listen to agricultural and industrial workers in the area. At first they didn't trust her. "Not infrequently," she wrote in a report to Kav La'Oved, "the workers entered the trade union offices glancing nervously about, for fear that informers who were on close terms with the employers would report the meeting to them." It was only after a few encounters, during which the workers were silent or replied laconically, that they opened up.

Well, then, what does a person think about when he's on top of a tree that's between eight and 12 meters tall, for such a long time? "As soon as I climb up the tree, the only thing I think about is how to get down from it," says a worker from the village of Jiftlik, in the Jordan Rift Valley. "I don't think about anything other than how not to fall out of the tree and how to manage to complete the quota. I know that at any moment I can fall and die, or fall and become a cripple, break an arm or a leg. So we work with one hand and hold the tree with the other. It's terribly hard. Your body cramps up. The people are nervous, afraid. The whole time you are crouching, on your feet."

'Distributing Monkeys'

Apart from routine maintenance, which includes irrigation and fertilization, work in a date palm grove is done in several major phases during the year. The removal of the thorns takes place in December and January. Pollination of the date flowers is done at the end of the winter and the beginning of spring. Pruning takes place in the spring and the harvest is in the fall, between September and November.

Optimally, the worker ascends to the treetop with the help of a "hoister," on a fenced-in platform, on which he stands during the work and on which he descends afterward. These cranes are very expensive (the large one costs NIS 500,000, though there is a smaller and cheaper model) and not all the growers can afford to buy or rent one for each worker or each team of workers.

According to the Israel Institute for Occupational Safety and Hygiene, in cases where there is no crane with a platform for each worker or team, they must be hoisted onto the tree via a crane and then be tied to the trunk by a safety harness - but only for a limited period. In an irony typical of the land settlement movement, this method used to be called "distributing monkeys": The crane dispersed the workers on the trees and brought them down at breaks and at the end of the day.

The work that is done in the summer months requires a stay of 20 minutes to an hour on the palm. Pruning, though, is more complex. If a tree that grows in an industrial grove is not pruned early on, it will produce large numbers of dates that "compete" with one another and usually do not reach their full size. Pruning is essential in order to obtain a large, high-quality date. The preferred method is manual pruning, by which a worker can do one or two trees a day. In this case, he has to be brought down from the tree several times during the day for breaks. Because the manual method was used in California, and the workers in question were hardscrabble Mexicans, this process came to be known in the industry as "Mexican pruning."

A few weeks ago, Alinat met a grove owner who does not reside in the Jordan Valley, but has close business relations with owners of groves there. She asked him if he was familiar with the custom of leaving workers on the tree for the whole day. The man, who refused to be interviewed for this article, told Alinat that this situation does exist and is known as the "taxi driver" phenomenon: The "taxi driver," he explained, sends the worker up the tree at the start of the day and collects him at the end. Quite a few Israeli employers in the Rift Valley use this method, the man said, because they treat Palestinians as cheap labor in which it's not worthwhile to invest. Another source in the industry - he too does not live in the Rift Valley - confirmed that the phenomenon exists, though he does not know how widespread it is.

Taxi Passengers

Five "Mexicans" or "taxi passengers" from the Jericho area are sitting opposite me in the restaurant at Almog Junction, at the southern end of the Jordan Rift Valley. They are all residents of Jiftlik; the youngest is 22, the oldest is 44. Like many Palestinians in the area, they began to help out in the house at age 6 or 7, and at the age of 14 or 15 were sent to work in the nearby settlements because of economic distress at home. Ten years ago they earned between NIS 20 and NIS 30 a day; today they earn NIS 40 net a day. All of them have years of experience working in the industry; all are intimately acquainted with dates.

"On average I am in the tree for five hours, without a crane," says S., the oldest of the group. "There are trees that have few fruits, and the work on them takes four hours, even less. But there are trees where there is a lot of fruit to pick. That can take eight hours."

Date palms have no branches, so where, exactly, do you sit?

S.: "The contractor - he is Palestinian, like us - divides the workers up by trees. The tractor lifts us up and you sit on the green palms high up, close to the trunk. I'm most afraid when there's a strong wind. The tree shakes, and you are scared to death of falling."

How do you manage to hold out for so many hours on a tree?

"You learn to hold out because you have to. Otherwise the contractor will say, 'You don't want to work? Go home.' You are crouching down the whole day and move with your hands. You finish one cluster, move to the second one, then the third one. Usually you have to cover 25 clusters a day."

If you're hungry or have to go to the toilet during these five, six or eight hours, what do you do?

"I take food and water up with me. You have a bag and you tie it to the tree. You eat with one hand and the other hand holds the tree. If you want to go to the toilet, you can't. You are not allowed to come down. So you go while you're up in the tree. Only water. Only urinating."

Excuse me for asking, but how can you urinate from an 11-meter-high palm tree?

"It's all right, you can ask, I have nothing to be ashamed of. With one hand you hold onto the trunk, or you stand on an especially strong branch, open the pants and urinate on the ground. The contractor doesn't care how you do it. 'Do it however you like. I don't care,' he says. 'What interests me is how much work you succeeded in doing during the day."

But it's dangerous, isn't it?

"What can we do? If the worker comes down from the tree to relieve himself and then goes back up, that takes time. In that time he can be two clusters behind, and then the Palestinian contractor won't hire him again."

And if you have to - excuse me - take a crap? What do you do?

"Nothing. It's impossible."

But sometimes you can't hold it in.

"You try to hold it in the whole day. You force yourself for hours. If it's impossible to hold it in, you ask the contractor to let you come down. The contractor starts to shout. You curse him, you shout. And everyone is looking at you. Everyone is listening to you beg to come down and take a crap. The contractor doesn't always let you come down. He humiliates me, shouts at me. One time a contractor shouted at me, 'The same way you piss from the tree, you can also shit from the tree.'"

Sweat of Their Brow

"For thousands of years the valley was uninhabited, until the first settlers arrived here and with the labor of their hands and the sweat of their brow, turned it into a blossoming garden," the Internet site of the Jordan Rift Valley Regional Council states. In 2004, according to the site, the valley's agricultural produce was worth 73 million euros. A significant portion of that came from the date industry.

There are contradictory data about the number of Palestinian workers in the Rift Valley settlements and about those employed in the date groves. According to the Ministry of Industry and Trade, there are about 11,000 dunams (nearly 3,000 acres) of these groves in the valley.

Yitzhak Levy, the staff officer for labor and employment in the Civil Administration, says that the date industry has "about 8,000 [workers] and in the pruning season the number of employees declines." But according to the regional council, "approximately 2,500 workers on average are employed in the valley in the various agricultural branches, mainly in two seasons: during the grape harvest and during the date harvest."

At the disposal of the date pruners, whose number no one apparently wants to cite, are, according to Zvi Avner, the chairman of the regional council's agricultural commission, "about 40 hoisters, and during the harvest the number rises [more equipment is rented] and there are about 120." But the Palestinian workers' complaints refer to the pruning season, when there is no increase in the number of hoisters.

Nevertheless, the regional council vehemently denies that there is a problem with this. "There is no foundation to the claim that workers are left on a tree without a hoister during the entire working day, without breaks on the ground," Dubi Tal, the council head, writes. "The hoister must be adjacent to the tree, because the pruning team stands on it the whole time as a base from which to do the pruning. The move from one tree to the next requires that the hoister be lowered to ground level, go to the next tree, lift up the workers, and so on and so forth." Besides this, Tal maintains, there is "an orderly break for breakfast after about four or five hours of work."

A perusal of Alinat's report and a conversation with the group from Jiftlik reveals the workers' profound fear of complaining, out of a concern that they will not be hired again. Is there any other way to protect the workers? "In the whole enforcement area in the labor sphere, and in other spheres, the potential complainants are deeply afraid to file complaints," staff officer Levy replies. "As this is a criminal procedure, anonymous complaints cannot serve as evidence for an indictment. At the same time, the great sensitivity of the subject will produce in the near future additional enforcement activity in the region, including talks with workers, in order to stamp out the offense, if indeed it exists."

In contrast to the workers' anxiety, Dubi Tal, the council chief, describes an idyllic relationship with the Palestinian neighbors. "To understand the special relations between us and them, you have to know it first-hand and examine it over time. Our mutual dependence on one another, on their economy and ours, has created a healthy, good relationship which proved itself even in the intifada years and the various closures. There were no cases of terrorist attacks perpetrated by our workers, who undergo a required security check. The personal and family ties between the workers and the farmers are also close, and they are invited and come to our family celebrations."

'Big Competition'

Of the five men from Jiftlik who mustered the courage to be interviewed - on condition of anonymity - four still work in dates. The majority of the laborers in the area are not registered with the Civil Administration; they work for Palestinian contractors on a daily basis, and are paid in cash each afternoon when they finish. Until recently they had never even heard of social-welfare rights. They say that the temporary nature of the work, which is as arbitrary as Russian roulette, pushes them and hundreds of others to keep taking risks.

"There is big competition among the Palestinian workers in the Jericho area, in every sphere, in agriculture and industry," says K., a 37-year-old Palestinian who used to work in dates and now has his own business. "They want to curry favor with the Israeli employer so he will let them keep working, and maybe make them permanent workers.

"But even if we have not become permanent workers, we want to stay on good terms with the Palestinian contractor and the Jewish employer so they will not fire us and we will be able to come back to work the next morning. So in terms of my considerations, I have to think about whether to come down from the tree to relieve myself and then to lag behind the others, or to stay on the tree, finish the quota and guarantee that I will be able to get the work tomorrow, too. Sometimes, even if the worker decides to take the risk of lagging behind in the work, the contractor will not let him come down."

If so, whose decision is it to leave you on the tree? Yours, the Jewish employer's or the Palestinian contractor's?

K.: "It is a decision that we go along with, but originally it comes from the contractor and the employer. The Jewish employer tells the Arab contractor that he doesn't have many cranes but he needs many workers. If you want to work, the employer tells the contractor, take one crane and get the workers on the trees. The Jewish employer pressures the Palestinian contractor to reach a very, very tough quota. If the contractor doesn't reach the quota, he is fined, so he pressures the worker."

S.: "The Jewish employer doesn't even have to deal with us. He doesn't shout and he doesn't argue, he has no contact with us - he leaves the dirty work to the Palestinian contractor. During this time he can sit in his air-conditioned office. He knows that the Palestinian is doing the dirty work for him."

According to the way representatives of the Rift Valley settlements deny the workers' claims, one might think that the Palestinian laborers live and work in a different country.

Yoav Tuvi, who runs the cooperative date grove in the community of Roi: "There are no workers who stay up on the trees in the grove. They work on hoists. They receive all the conditions and even more than what you are obligated to give a worker."

Yaakov Cohen, economic coordinator of Kibbutz Gilgal in the valley: "I am not familiar with that method and we don't work according to it. The workers have hoists and under no circumstances do we leave someone on the tree and tell him, 'Okay, see you in seven hours.'"

The secretary of Argaman, another Jordan Valley settlement, agrees: "The workers in the Argaman cooperative grove are employed seven hours a day. Every day at 10 A.M. they have a 45-minute break on the ground. The work on the trees is done on hoists. If there are such phenomena as you describe and you succeed in exposing this, I will be the first to welcome it."

Shimon Bar-Asher, the secretary of Moshav Masua, adds: "The association has five or six hoists and on each one is a platform. The pruning is done standing up. Several workers prune the tree, so after about a quarter of an hour they move to another tree ... The workers employed by the association work from 6 A.M. until 1 P.M."

Says Maggie Myudek, secretary of Netiv Hagdud: "That phenomenon is totally unknown in the cooperative grove of Netiv Hagdud. Beyond that, I, as the person responsible for the association's cooperative grove, cannot be responsible for private employers in private groves, or for the conditions in which they employ their workers."

Is it possible that the Palestinian contractors issue different instructions?

Myudek:"I don't know, but in my visits to the grove I never saw people hanging from the trees."


Dreams of Social Security

Over the years reports have accumulated about the employment of Palestinian children in the settlements. Today the Civil Administration issues work permits for youths of 14 and over, claiming that "in Judea and Samaria the youth labor laws and the safety laws are based on Jordanian law."

Asked if there is an advantage to employing youths in the date industry, the five workers answer: "Of course. Kids are quick and light. They can climb the trees faster. And it's easier for the contractor to cheat kids when paying them and easier for him to humiliate them or exploit them. A boy doesn't want a lot of money and he also doesn't think much about what can happen to him in this work. He doesn't think about the possibility that the branch will break and he will fall."

The five relate that poverty drives families to remove their children from school to work in agriculture. Many of these youngsters work in the groves during the pruning season. "You have to understand," they say, "that for a boy what's important is to earn as much money as possible. The village children compete over who can earn the most money during vacations, when school is out. With that money, they say, I can buy things that my parents can't buy me, like a computer or a bicycle, or schoolbooks."

S.: "Usually, the kids who go to work at a young age are ones who didn't do well in school." He nods toward Y., 35, the quietest person around the table, and says, "He's spoiled: He was in school until he was 17. Even though he behaved there just like a chair. I, for example, have a 17-year-old son who didn't make progress in school, so he has to go to work. He has been working for 20 days in the dates and he is very angry. Very irritable. He doesn't want to go on working. But I tell him that if he failed in school, he has no choice."

K.: "Education is our hardest battle. More than 90 percent of the Palestinian workers in agriculture in the Rift Valley are illiterate. These people are very weak. They can't do anything. We don't want our children to be illiterate. Today illiteracy means not only people who can't read or write, but also people who don't know how to work a machine or a computer."

The five workers from Jiftlik do not easily reveal their emotions. But as they are about to get up, I ask them again: What does a person think about when he's in a tree for five, six, eight hours?

"About the competition," Y. says. "Sometimes I look at the worker next to me and see that he is working very fast, and I know that I have to be as fast as him, and I get frightened."

"The hardest thing, not just physically, but also personally, is to relieve yourself," S. says. "You think about it a lot, because it's hard culturally, hard in terms of politeness. Everyone is looking at you. When you stand up to urinate, you are exposed to the view of all the other workers. When you need to crap, you have to ask out loud, next to everyone, to argue just so they let you come down from the tree."

What would you like to see happen now, after you agreed to talk to Haaretz?

K.: "Our dream is safe work, but also proper money in return. We don't want to work so hard and not get enough money for it. I dream that after 20 years, 30 years of work I will have some sort of security. Social security, like a pension, so I won't have to live without an income. After 30 years of work the laborers have nothing. At the age of 50, either they are helped by their family or they get handouts."

"My dream is for the workers to stop being afraid," says H., 35. "Fear is the workers' problem. Because of fear they keep quiet and let everyone exploit them."

"We would like the prime minister to understand us," S. says. "He has to understand us. After all, he is a working man, too."