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Apartheid in the fields: From occupied Palestine to UK Supermarkets

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Israeli agricultural export companies are profiting from the Israeli colonisation of Palestinian land.

In 2005 a broad coalition of Palestinians made a call for ordinary people all over the world to take action to boycott Israeli goods, companies and state institutions: “We, representatives of Palestinian civil society, call upon international civil society organizations and people of conscience all over the world to impose broad boycotts and implement divestment initiatives against Israel similar to those applied to South Africa in the apartheid era.”

This call has inspired a global solidarity movement aimed at targeting Israeli capitalism in solidarity with the Palestinian struggle against oppression. We have compiled articles and interviews with Palestinian agricultural workers and farmers in the West Bank and Gaza, together with information on many of the Israeli exporters and UK supermarkets, as a resource for campaigners seeking to follow this call.

Open letter to Sainsbury’s shareholders

Corporate Watch urges you to pressure the Sainsbury’s management to listen to the call from Palestinians living under Israeli occupation, to boycott Israeli goods and not to source goods from companies profiting from human rights abuses against Palestinians by operating in Israeli settlements.

In 2005 hundreds of civil society organisations in Palestine called on international civil society to boycott Israeli goods and Israeli companies until the Israeli state’s crimes against Palestinians end. Since then the boycott movement has grown into a powerful global force, which has the capacity to seriously challenge the Israeli state’s attempts to dispossess the people of Palestine from their land.

In 2012 the Cooperative Supermarket became the first major UK retailer to announce that it would not trade with any company that operates in Israel’s illegal settlements.

In September 2013 Sainsbury’s confirmed to Corporate Watch that it sources its goods from several Israeli companies that operate in the settlements: Arava, Mehadrin and Edom.

We are calling on you to help us to convince Sainsbury’s to follow the Cooperative Group’s lead and to stop sourcing from these companies.

Working for poverty wages on land stolen from their families

Israeli agricultural companies operate on land which has been taken from Palestinians by force. Communities, whose livelihood has been decimated by the occupation, have no option but to work for below the minimum wage on land which, in many cases, previously belonged to their families.

Mehadrin source their produce from the Israeli settlement of Beqa’ot. One worker from Beqa’ot told Corporate Watch: “Before the occupation in 1967 Libqya [The Arabic name for the area where Beqa'ot is now situated] was owned by Palestinians who used it for planting crops and raising animals. All of the families around here owned land in Libqya.

“I remember when my mother passed Libqya when I was young she told us how she used to play there with her brothers and sisters. Our family owned 70 dunums of land there.

“This reality is too painful. When I was older I tried to reach the land my mother told me about. But a settler told me I was forbidden to go there”

Paid under the minimum wage

These Israeli companies consistently underpay their workers. Palestinian workers in Israeli settlements have been entitled to the Israeli minimum wage since an Israeli Supreme Court ruling in 2007 (see here). The current hourly minimum wage is 23.12 NIS (New Israeli Shekels),the equivalent of 184.96 NIS for an eight hour working day, having risen from 20.70 NIS in 2009. However, for Palestinian workers on Israeli settlements in the Jordan Valley these conditions seem an impossible dream.

In 2010 and 2013 Corporate Watch conducted interviews with settlement workers showing that Palestinians are consistently paid as little as half the minimum wage. Many of our interviewees also reported that children under the age of 16 were employed on the settlements.

The table below outlines our 2013 findings:

Name of settlement Wages reportedly paid Wages paid are below the minimum wage Companies sourcing goods from the settlement Child labour reported Workers complained that they were not allowed to unionise
Beit Ha’arava 65-70 New Israeli Shekels (NIS) Yes Arava, Edom Yes Yes
Beqa’ot 82 NIS (minus 12 NIS deducted for transport) Yes Mehadrin Tnuport (MTEX), Carmel Agrexco, STM Agricultural Exports Yes
Na’ama 65-80NIS Yes Viva, Carmel Agrexco Yes
Kalia Yes Carmel Agrexco
Tomer 70 NIS Yes Edom, Hadiklaim, Agrexco Yes Yes
Massua 80 NIS Yes Mehadrin Tnuport (Mtex) Yes
Vered Yeriho 70 NIS Yes Carmel Agrexco Yes
Argaman 60 NIS Yes Carmel Agrexco, Ada Yes

Arava, Edom and Mehadrin source their products from many of the above settlements. In doing so they are helping to sustain the settlement economy.

Palestinian workers’ views of the companies working in the settlements

Corporate Watch asked the Palestinian workers on Israeli settlements we met about their opinion of the companies working there. The quotes below are illustrative of their views:

It is important for you to tell people that these settlements are illegal and that we don’t have any choice except to work for them… I think it’s important to boycott Israeli products as the settlements are stealing our land and stealing our water. [If the companies in Tomer were to close down it would be] like a dream, inshallah [God willing], it’s freedom for the Palestinian people.”

Mohammed, worker in Tomer

When the settlement economy is destroyed the settlers will leave. They are only here for business.”

Fadi, worker at Beit Ha’arava

They are working on stolen land, using water that they have stolen from us. If the boycott campaign damages these companies then the settlers will leave our land.”

Fares, worker at Beit Ha’arava

We support the boycott even if we lose our work. We might lose our jobs but we will get back our land. We will be able to work without being treated as slaves.”

Zaid, worker at Beqa’ot

The case of Sodastream

Sainsbury’s stocks Sodastream products for making fizzy drinks at home. Sodastream has its main manufacturing facility in the Israeli settlement industrial area of Mishor Adumim. Mishor Adumim was established on land previously occupied by Palestinian Bedouin. The Bedouin occupants were forcibly evicted and forced to settle in an area close to the Jerusalem Municipal rubbish dump. In 2013 Corporate Watch interviewed several people from this community. Here is what one of them said about Sodastream:

“We are not allowed to go near them [the factories]. They took our livelihood to build them and we got evacuated for them to build their factories. After they built them there were no resources to live from for us. The gains are nothing compared to what was lost. They destroyed our lives and then gave a few people a job. It is nothing”.

Sainsbury’s – stop sourcing from occupation profiteers

It is not enough for Sainsbury’s to claim that they do not source goods from Israeli settlements in the Occupied Palestinian Territories, they should cease sourcing from companies that are profiting from the seizure of Palestinian land and a captive workforce living under occupation. By sourcing products from Arava, Mehadrin, Sodastream and Edom, Sainsbury’s is supporting the settler economy and acting against the wishes of the Palestinian people. We are calling on Sainsbury’s to follow the lead of the Cooperative Supermarket and refuse to buy products from these companies.

This letter has been sent to Sainsbury’s head office

‘We want to work without being treated as slaves’

Greenhouses in Beqa'ot settlement, photo by Corporate Watch February 2013

Greenhouses in Beqa’ot settlement, photo by Corporate Watch February 2013

During January 2013, Corporate Watch conducted interviews with Palestinians who work in the illegal Israeli settlements in the Jordan Valley. Part one to three of our findings can be read here, here and here.

We met 44 year old Rashid* and 38 year old Zaid* in their hometown of Tammoun in the northern West Bank. They both work in the illegal Israeli settlement of Beqa’ot. A colony with 171 residents situated close to the Palestinian community of Al Hadidya in the Jordan Valley.

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Palestinian bedouin close to Beqa’ot are prevented from builing permanent structures by the Israeli military, photo taken by Corporate Watch in February 2013

Tammoun is situated just outside the Jordan Valley. Like thousands of other Palestinian workers Zaid and Rashid travel into the Jordan Valley in search of work on a daily basis. To cross into the valley they have to pass through the Israeli military checkpoint at Tayasir or Al Hamra.

Rashid has worked in Beqa’ot since the early ’90s whereas Zaid worked in Israel until 5 years ago. Zaid tells us: “Now it is impossible for me to get a permit to work outside the West Bank.”

For Israeli companies, sourcing their goods from the settlements in the Jordan Valley allows them to circumvent workers rights and health and safety regulations. According to Zaid: “Inside Israel the workers have contracts and the conditions are better. This is because in Israel there are some controls on companies, unlike in the West Bank.”

Both men work all year round except for September-November when there is no work available. They have no contracts and tell us that none of their workmates do either. Their job is to plant grapes and tend to the vines, pruning them and spraying them with fertilisers and chemicals. At harvest time they cut and collect the grapes.

Grapevines in the settlement of Beqa'ot, photo taken by Corporate Watch, February 2013

Grapevines in the settlement of Beqa’ot, photo taken by Corporate Watch, February 2013

Zaid and Rashid both work in the fields outside the boundaries of Beqa’ot. They do not have a permit to enter the settlement itself.

Paid below the minimum wage

Palestinian workers in Israeli settlements have been entitled to the Israeli minimum wage since an Israeli Supreme Court ruling in 2007 (see here). In 2010 Corporate Watch conducted over 40 interviews with settlement workers showing that Palestinians are consistently paid as little as half the minimum wage. These conditions remained largely unchanged when we returned in 2014.

The current hourly minimum wage is 23.12, NIS (New Israeli Shekels),the equivalent of 184.96 NIS for an eight hour working day, having risen from 20.70 NIS in 2009. However, for Palestinian workers on Israeli settlements in the Jordan Valley these conditions seem an impossible dream.

Zaid and Rashid are employed directly by the settlers in Beqa’ot and speak to them directly to arrange their work. Both get paid 82 New Israeli Shekels (NIS), 18 of which goes towards daily transport.

They have no insurance provided by their employer. Rashid explains: “Last year one of the workers died, but the settlers did not help his family at all.

The men do not receive any paid holiday, even for religious holidays. This is despite the fact that an Israeli government website advises that workers are entitled to 14 days paid holiday and must receive a written contract and payslips from their employer (see here).

Both men are members of the General Palestinian Workers Union (GPWU). However, they are unable to represent workers in Beqa’ot or negotiate with their bosses. According to Rashid: “We organise trainings for agricultural workers but we are not recognised by the settlers, we do not receive any representation from Histradrut”.

Histradrut is the Israeli trade union organisation. Many campaigners for boycott, divestment and sanctions against Israeli apartheid have called for a boycott of the Histradrut because of its failure to represent Palestinian workers and its overt support of Israeli state policies. For example, in 2010 the British University and College Union broke ties with the Histradrut; a UCU spokesperson said the Histradrut, “supported the Israeli assault on civilians in Gaza” and “did not deserve the name of a trade union”.

Companies sourcing produce from Beqa’ot

Mehadrin Tnuport boxes ready to be packed with grapes, photo taken by Corporate Watch in February 2013

Mehadrin Tnuport boxes ready to be packed with grapes, photo taken by Corporate Watch in February 2013

Carmel Agrexco boxes ready to be packed with grapes, photo taken by Corporate Watch in February 2013

Carmel Agrexco boxes ready to be packed with grapes, photo taken by Corporate Watch in February 2013

STM  boxes ready to be packed with grapes, photo taken by Corporate Watch in February 2013

STM boxes ready to be packed with grapes, photo taken by Corporate Watch in February 2013

Export label on a box in Beqa'ot statying that these grapes are shipped by Carmel agrexco, Photo taken in Febuary 2013 by Corporate Watch

Export label on a box in Beqa’ot statying that these grapes are shipped by Carmel agrexco, Photo taken in Febuary 2013 by Corporate Watch

Export label on a box in Beqa’ot statying that these grapes are shipped by Carmel agrexco, Photo taken in Febuary 2013 by Corporate Watch

Rashid tells us: “We label the grapes ‘Made in the Jordan Valley’ and mark them with the name and phone number of the Israeli settler.

“Each of the settler has his own packing house. When we harvest the grapes they are taken first of all to packing houses in Beqa’ot owned by individual settler, then transported to a central refrigeration unit owned by the Moshav [a Hebrew word for a cooperative farm]. Then a refrigeration truck takes them to be exported.”

The men tell us that the majority of the grapes they harvest are exported through Mehadrin.

Corporate Watch visited Beqa’Ot in February 2013 and photographed several packing houses displaying Mehadrin signage. Israeli company Mehadrin Tnuport Export (MTEX) is a part of the huge Mehadrin Group which owns a 50% of STM Agricultural Exports Ltd – another Israeli company dealing in vegetables. MTEX export around 70% of all their produce to outside Israel and are one of the largest suppliers for the Jaffa brand world wide. Sainsburys confirmed to Corporate Watch in August 2013 that the supermarket sourced fresh vegetables from Mehadrin. Mehadrin is also certified to supply fresh produce to Tesco (see here).

Corporate Watch also photographed boxes and export labels for Carmel Agrexco in Beqa’ot. Carmel Agrexco was the Israeli state owned fresh produce export company. In 2011 the company went into liquidation, due in part to the international boycott movement. The brand has since been bought by Gideon Bickel of Israeli firm Bickel Flowers and has been fighting to regain lost contracts.

Working for poverty wages on land stolen from their families

Rashid and Zaid refer to Beqa’ot by its Palestinian name, Libqya. Rashid tells us: “Before the occupation in 1967 Libqya was owned by Palestinians who used it for planting crops and raising animals. All of the families around here owned land in Libqya.

“I remember when my mother passed Libqya when I was young she told us how she used to play there with her brothers and sisters. Our family owned 70 dunums of land there.

“This reality is too painful. When I was older I tried to reach the land my mother told me about. But a settler told me I was forbidden to go there.”

‘We will get back our land’

Greenhouses in the settlement of Beqa'ot, photo taken by Corporate Watch in February 2013

Greenhouses in the settlement of Beqa’ot, photo taken by Corporate Watch in February 2013

Both men are supportive of the call for a boycott of Israeli agricultural companies. When it was pointed out that if the boycott was successful then their employers would not be able to pay them a wage any longer Zaid responded: “We support the boycott even if we lose our work. We might lose our jobs but we will get back our land. We will be able to work without being treated as slaves.”

* Names have been changed at the authors’ discretion

 

Will the flowers of Gaza break Israel’s siege this Valentine’s Day?

Flowers from Gaza being prepared for export

Valentine’s Day is almost upon us and for supermarkets and florists that means a massive increase in the sale of flowers. But where are the bouquets they are flogging to romantic couples grown?

Farmers in Gaza have long been encouraged by Israeli companies to focus their production on high risk ‘cash crops’ such as flowers and strawberries, and the arrival of carnations from Rafah to European markets for Christmas or Valentine’s day is often cheered on by the Israeli Government which uses it as a PR exercise to show how it ‘facilitates’ Palestinian exports. Unsurprisingly, this is not the full story.

Continue reading

Cargoflora Ltd: Distributor for Agrexco, goes into administration

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Corporate Watch has received documents showing that Cargoflora Ltd has gone into administration. The documents state that “Their company is no longer operating and their affairs are being handled by an administrator”. The company is also listed as “in liquidation” on the Companies House database. Continue reading

Cherriessa: From occupied land to Europe’s markets

During a recent visit to the Jordan Valley, Corporate  Watch found evidence of a company operating from there that we previously haven’t come across.  Cherriessa, trading under the slogan  ‘From Farm to Market’ is a family owned business which claims to sort, package and export vegetables from Israel to Europe. According to Cherriessa Ltd’s web-site, the company was founded in 2009 to ‘address the developing and growth of ‘The Saada Family Modern Farm’. The Saada Farm was founded in 1989 and exported their produce through Carmel Agrexco.

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Cherriessa labels aimed for the European market obtained in the occupied Jordan Valley.

Continue reading

Photo blog: ‘Organic’ Carmel Agrexco crops grown in the settlement of Kalia

A sign in the fields of the illegal settlement of Kalia in the Israeli occupied Jordan Valley for 'organic goods' grown by Hayun Yitzhak - taken by Corporate Watch researchers on 26/01/2013

A sign in the fields of the illegal settlement of Kalia in the Israeli occupied Jordan Valley for ‘organic goods’ grown by Hayun Yitzhak – taken by Corporate Watch researchers on 26/01/2013

Corporate Watch visited the fields of the illegal settlement of Kalia, a settlement kibbutz on the coast of the Dead Sea, on the 26th January 2013.

Carmel-Agrexco was Israel’s main agricultural export company, exporting 70% of all fresh produce from Israel’s illegal settlements, until September 2011 when it was formally liquidated, partly due to pressure from the global Boycott, Divestment and Sanctions movement. Formerly state owned, Agrexco has been privately purchased by Bickel Flowers and, according to Who Profits?, has regained a significant proportion of its former market.

A packing house bearing Agrexco signage, which was packaging goods for Agrexco’s ECOFRESH brand in 2010, was operating nearby but was packaging goods for export by other agricultural companies instead of Agrexco, indicating that Agrexco has lost some of its market in this region.

Crops were labelled as being grown for export by Carmel Agrexco. One sign read “Organic FC [Field Crops], Hayun Yitzhak”. Continue reading

BDS Victory: EDOM’s Chairman promises to resign and divest shares

Jimmy Russo, the Company Chairman of EDOM, has told Corporate Watch that he plans to “resign” from his chairmanship and “actively seek to sell” his 20% shareholding in the Israeli company. His announcement was in reply to questions about new evidence found by Corporate Watch that EDOM UK, the Israeli company (despite the misleading name), is packaging cherry tomatoes in the Israeli settlement of Beit Ha’arava in the occupied Jordan Valley.

EDOM branded products are sold in Sainsburys stores in the UK

EDOM UK cherry tomatoes acquired from a packing house in the illegal settlement of Beit Ha'arava - Photo taken by Corporate Watch researchers February 2013

EDOM UK cherry tomatoes acquired from a packing house in the illegal settlement of Beit Ha’arava – Photo taken by Corporate Watch researchers February 2013

Packing house being used to package EDOM UK cherry tomatoes - the signs on the outside say Agrexco and Hadiklaim - photo taken by Corporate Watch 4th January 2013

Packing house being used to package EDOM UK cherry tomatoes – the signs on the outside say Agrexco and Hadiklaim – photo taken by Corporate Watch 4th January 2013

Back in 2010 Corporate Watch urged Russo to divest his shares. We wrote:

“To continue to maintain shares in EDOM is to ignore the suffering of those who have lived their entire lives under Israeli apartheid and occupation. The only way to remain ethical in this context is to divest.”

Russo, who is also the director of British company Valley Grown Salads (VGS), made the following “commitments” on 7th February 2013:

“1. I will confirm that I will resign as [EDOM] company chairman with immediate effect as I do not want my company, VGS receiving this constant harassment every year and being involved in political situations which are totally out of my control.

2. I will actively seek to sell my 20% stake holding in the company as the aggravation for no reward is not worth continuing with.”

Russo confirms that VGS will not source goods from the West Bank in the future but says that the company will continue sourcing from EDOM and other companies in Israel.

Russo also pledged to answer questions put to VGS by Corporate Watch and other media outlets.

Corporate Watch has contacted EDOM but has not received a reply. Continue reading

“Everything changes apart from the money”: Conditions for settlement workers in the Jordan Valley – January 2013 (Part One)

On February 9th a coalition of civil society groups have called for an international day of action against Israeli agricultural companies in line with the movement for boycott, divestment and sanctions (BDS) against Israeli militarism, apartheid and colonisation. Corporate Watch researchers are in Palestine collecting new information and over the coming weeks Corporate Watch will be writing a series of articles and blogs examining Israeli agricultural exports.

The reverse of an ID card which Palestinians must apply to the Israeli Administration for before working in some Jordan Valley settlements

The reverse of an ID card which Palestinians must apply to the Israeli Administration for before working in some Jordan Valley settlements

Palestinian workers in Israeli settlements have been entitled to the Israeli minimum wage since an Israeli Supreme Court ruling in 2007 (see here). In 2010 Corporate Watch conducted over 40 interviews with settlement workers showing that Palestinians are consistently paid as little as half the minimum wage.

The current hourly minimum wage is 23.12, NIS (New Israeli Shekels). The equivalent of 184.96 NIS for an eight hour working day, having risen from 20.7 NIS in 2009. An Israeli government website advises that workers are also entitled to 14 days paid holiday and must receive a written contract and payslips from their employer (see here). However, for Palestinian workers on Israeli settlements in the Jordan Valley these conditions are an impossible dream. Continue reading

A new BDS target in the Jordan Valley: Hishtil

On February 9th a coalition of civil society groups has called for an international day of action against Israeli agricultural companies in line with the movement for boycott, divestment and sanctions against Israeli militarism, apartheid and colonisation. Corporate Watch researchers are in Palestine collecting new information and over the coming weeks Corporate Watch will be writing a series of articles and blogs examining Israeli agricultural exports. Continue reading