SALFIT, West Bank (WOMENSENEWS)--This month, five Palestinian female workers from a factory in the Israeli settlement of Barkan, in the West Bank, expect to find themselves in a Jerusalem court.
They are part of a group of 21 women embroiled in a long-running legal battle with their employer, Israeli company Royalife, which manufactures bed linen for export to Europe, Turkey and the United States.
The women claim that conditions in the factory break Israeli Ministry of Labor health and safety rules and that they were paid far less than the Israeli minimum wage, which a 2007 Israeli Supreme Court ruling declared applicable to industrial settlements.
Royalife's management has so far rejected the claims.
'The plant is a very high standard sewing unit which has top work conditions,' the company said in a press statement in November 2008. 'The unit was authorized by leading international institutions.'
In a recent interview, Umm Raed, a woman in her 50s from a village near Barkan, told Women's eNews that female workers in the factory were paid between six and eight shekels an hour (under $2), while male workers earned an hourly wage of between nine and 12 shekels. All of these factory wages were less than the minimum wage of 20 shekels.
Umm Raed, who requested that only her first name be used for safety purposes, also alleged that they received no paid holidays, sick pay or maternity benefits. Hazardous Conditions, Mistreatment
'We also have accidents because we are cutting cloth,' said Umm Raed, one of 16 women still waiting for court dates. 'My daughter had an accident where a roll of cloth fell on her legs when the supervisor dropped it. It broke her legs but they didn't call an ambulance; they put her in a private car to the hospital. They didn't pay for medical treatment and now, three years later, she still has pain in her legs.'
The group of female workers from the Royalife factory first took their employer to court in 2008, after being refused better pay and conditions. As a result, they say, they were fired from the factory.
KavLaOved, a Tel Aviv-based labor rights advocacy group, helped them obtain a court order to reinstate their jobs.
Salwa Alinat, a case worker with KavLaOved, told Women's eNews that Royalife has since repeatedly sacked workers who maintain their claims, reinstating them for short periods if ordered to do so by the court.
The women say they have tried to start a sewing factory of their own to earn an alternative living, but that they have faced threats of violence and arson by a local subcontractor who helps Royalife recruit its workers. Pressured Out of Court
According to Khalila, who also requested that only her first name be used, of the around 45 women who initiated the court case in 2008, about 20 have withdrawn because of such pressure. Khalila is one of the five women due in court in July.
'This is normal,' said KavLaOved's Salwa Alinat. 'If you interview employers, all of them say 'OK, we break the law. We don't care.' There is no shame and there is no enforcement in the settlements by the Israeli ministry.'
Under pressure from KavLaOved, the Israeli Ministry of Labor announced in 2006 that it would start to enforce employment standards for Palestinian workers in West Bank settlements. The Ministry declined to respond to KavLaOved's allegations this month.
Alinat says the conditions alleged by the women in Barkan are common in other Israeli-controlled industrial and agricultural areas in the West Bank.
'There are many problems, with salaries, social security, health and safety,' said Alinat. 'Israeli companies come to the settlements and industrial zones for cheap labor, so it is like a jungle. The employers decide whatever they want.'
Palestinian society also discriminates against women working in settlements, seeing them as verging on collaborators.
'My two daughters now support our family,' said Umm Raed. 'But they are thinking of giving up their jobs in the settlement or nobody will marry them.'
Sarah Irving is a freelance writer based in Manchester, Britain. Her work can be found at http://www.sarahirving.net