Today is Omar's last day of work for his employer in one of the religious settlements of Gush Katif. He will finish what he began a week ago: packing up the contents of the house and dismantling whatever can be dismantled. "I asked my boss if he would give me something from his house, as a gift," the 29-year-old says without embarrassment. As someone who has to support his wife and two children, along with the households of his unemployed brothers and as someone who almost daily crossed over from crowded Khan Yunis, with its dowdy concrete houses pockmarked by shelling and bullets to the spacious settlement surrounded by greenery, he is not ashamed to expect a present from the man he has worked for since 1996.
Some employers, he says, gave their workmen a gift: a refrigerator, a fan, or NIS 150-200. But his boss told him he cannot give gifts and is selling whatever he cannot take to his new home.
Bidding farewell to his boss is not difficult for Omar; they had not forged a particularly affectionate tie and Omar says the same is true for most Palestinian laborers in the settlements. He does lament the loss of income and the reality of almost certain unemployment.
Some 3,200 Palestinians worked in Gaza Strip settlements in July, but neither the state nor their employers is compensating them for losing their jobs. The Evacuation Compensation Law passed by the Knesset provides two benefits for people whose job is terminated by the evacuation: a monthly adjustment payment for a former employee or business owner, and the right to quit yet be eligible for severence pay. But the new law specifically grants these benefits to Israelis only.
Asked his opinion of the discriminatory law, Omar laughed. "We never received our basic rights as workers. Not minimum wage, not vacation, not sick leave. So should we be surprised that the Israeli Knesset did not pass a law that would compensate us too?" he says during a meeting in Gaza with him and two other laborers from Khan Yunis at the Palestinian Center for Democracy and Workers' Rights.
Omar began working for his boss nine years ago for NIS 32 a day. In July 2005 his daily wages were NIS 50. His friend Khaled makes NIS 45 for an eight-hour day's work. The hourly minimum wage in Israel is NIS 17.93, or almost NIS 145 per day. Omar, who is active in an independent workers committee that was founded in the Gaza Strip this year, says the maximum paid to Palestinian workers there was NIS 60 per day. An Israeli who spent a lot of time in Gush Katif in recent months heard from employers that the daily wage is between NIS 40-80.
K., a secular Gush Katif farmer, employed in his greenhouses some 20 Palestinians, four Nepalese and three Israelis who lived outside Gush Katif. A week ago, as the conversation with him was taking place, the Palestinian laborers were dismantling his house and greenhouses. The veterans among them had been in his employ 14 years. Asked whether he would give his workers severence pay, he said: "I'm supposed to compensate the workers, but who is supposed to compensate me? We're not really compensated for what we're losing. I didn't fire them, the state fired them, let the state pay them. Why didn't it think about that?"
K. insists his Palestinian workmen made NIS 2,800 a month, and up to NIS 3,200 with overtime. Informed that this was much more than other Gush Katif employers pay, he replied: "Minimum wage doesn't apply here. Palestinians in the Strip have no work rights. I pay more because I have long-standing laborers." (Omar said in response that he has never heard of a Palestinian earning a basic salary of NIS 2,800 in Gush Katif).
Yossi Tzarfati, who heads the Agricultural Committee of Gush Katif, could not say whether employers are giving or will give their Palestinian laborers dismissal letters - so they can receive severence pay. He also did not know how much Palestinians earn because that is "an individual matter between employers and workers." He did say that the Palestinians "are not part of the minimum wage."
But the minimum wage requirement does apply to Israeli employers in the occupied territories with Palestinian workers. Back in 1982, a GOC Command order was issued in the territories stipulating that "a person employed in a community [an Israeli settlement - A.H.] is entitled to receive wages from his employer that do not fall short of the minimum wage and will also be entitled to cost of living adjustment, all as updated in Israel from time to time." The Civil Administration is supposed to oversee and enforce that order, but the office of the Government Coordinator in the Territories (to which the Civil Administration is subordinate) stated that "so far, we know of no complaints filed about the lack of enforcement of this order."
Indeed, Omar and his friends have not complained officially that the wages they get in the settlements are almost a third of the obligatory minimum wage. Low income and high unemployment in the Gaza Strip, particularly in the past five years, have shielded employers from complaints and let the Civil Administration off the hook. Now Omar is troubled by a more pressing problem: he knows about a dozen laborers whose employers have already left, without paying them wages for the past week or two. Now they have no way of locating their bosses to get at least those few hundred shekels.