As the siege and ongoing Israeli attacks and violations continue in the Palestinian territories, the International Workers Day, or May Day as some chose to call it, makes no difference to the Palestinian workers who have no work anyway. Yet even children are now affected, as this feature tells stories of Palestinian children who were forced to be child workers due to the bad conditions in the occupied territories.
May Day or not, it does not really make any difference to Ibrahim Al Qahqwaji, whose nickname Al Qahwaji refers to the type of work he is doing, as Al Qahwaji refers to the person who sells coffee.
He started this “profession” two years ago after he had to leave school in order to provide livelihood for his younger brothers, especially after his father became sick and was fired by his Israeli employers as he worked in Israel. His employers fired him and did not even pay him any compensation.
“Now, I have no other option but to work”, Ibrahim said, “my mother said I should, maybe, become a Qahwaji and sell coffee, it is a tough job, but now I got used to it, and am helping my brothers, they are all younger than me, my father lost his job, I feel happy when I manage to provide my brothers and parents with what they need, it makes me forget all my pain”.
Ibrahim works nearly 10 hours each day; he now has some “permanent clients” who drink his coffee every morning. He also managed to build strong relations with his “clients” who prefer his coffee over the coffee of other sellers.
“I also make sure I provide them with the best coffee, I also provide them with coffee depending on what they ask for and on their wishes”, Ibrahim added.
His clients are workers, lawyers, doctors, engineers, and employees of different institutions. But today, on workers days, he went to their institutions to sell them his coffee and found everything closed.
He is a worker indeed, but he did not know that today, May Day, he should be on vacation. But he never takes a vacation, any day without work is a day without money, and a day without money is a day when he can’t bring food and income to his poor family.
Another youth, Mahmoud Khalid, has the same “profession”, and on this day, the International Workers Day, he also deserves a vacation. He, as well as many children, who had to leave school in order to provide livelihood to their families deserve to rest.
Mahmoud is fifteen years old; he left school one year ago and started selling his coffee in Jenin to employees of different offices and institutions as they became his regular clients.
On May Day, he went as he does every day, but was surprised to see all offices closed, and then he wondered “What is Workers Day?!” “I never heard of this day before”.
Sadness was apparent on his face, usually feasts are good days for him, people give gifts and presents, and he gets more work, yet on this day, no work and no money.
“today I lost at least 10 customers”, he said, “who will compensate me for that, my father is without work since four years, we have no income and no support as my father lost his work in Haifa”.
Mahmoud and Ibrahim are a small example of the large numbers and percentages of child laborers in Jenin. They, as Bayer Sa’id, head of the Jenin office of the Palestinian Workers Union, said “are paying the price of the Israeli siege, closures and the increasing rates of unemployment”.
“Jenin city, in the northern part of the West Bank, became known as the capital of poverty in Palestine”, he added.
He also said that the Union tries to counter child labor, tries to counter poverty, but under these conditions, ongoing Israeli attacks, closures, roadblocks, they cannot do anything about it as no alternative could be found.
The impoverished families became unable to provide a decent living to their children, the families cannot pay the finances needed for schooling, and now their children became workers.
It is indeed sad to see this happening; national efforts are needed in order to find a proper solution to save the children, ensure a better future, and ensure proper education.
Resident Khalid Hussein said that “when you are hungry, you cannot think about education and school”.
“I am unable to find work, unable to feed my children, where can I find money to send them to school”, he said, “I receive some aid, but it is barely enough for food, I used to work in Israel, and now I cannot obtain a permit to work there”.
“I had to deprive my son Hussein, 15, from going to school, I never wanted to do that”, Khalid added, “My son now carries stuff for the people and gets paid some money in return, what’s the use of talking about Workers Day while the Palestinian workers cannot bring bread to their families, we need a proper solution, we need an alternative to child labor”.
Yet, in Jenin, you will find dozens of children who practice different sorts of work, some of them try to sell clothes, other try to sell perfumes or household products, others work in cleaning apartments and buildings.
Awad is a child who works 12 hours a day in a shop, he in only paid 30 NIS per day, (1 US Dollar is 3.44 according to today’s rate).
Awad is working hard, his father used to work and support his eight family members, but he lost his work more than five years ago.
Othman is another child, he mother had to sell her gold and he bought a cart and started selling vegetables. His father helps him, and they have to work twelve hours a day, under the rain and cold weather, or under the burning summer sun.
“work is not going well, there are lots of sellers like me, but we just have to be patient, we have no other alternative”, Othman said, “Thank God for everything, I hope that by next May Day, I will have a better job, I hope I will be able to have a day off and rest, but how can we rest while there is siege, and high prices for everything, how can we have a day off while we are barely making enough just to feed ourselves”.