x Abu Dhabi, UAESaturday 20 January 2018

After Scarlett Johansson controversy, firings put SodaStream back in spotlight

In July, 60 Palestinians were fired from SodaStream - the West Bank factory at the centre of the Scarlett Johansson-Oxfam controversy. The trade union representing them says the firings demonstrated “a degree of racism”.

Palentinian workers inside the Sodastream factory in Mishor Adumim, in the West Bank. Kate Shuttleworth for The National
Palentinian workers inside the Sodastream factory in Mishor Adumim, in the West Bank. Kate Shuttleworth for The National

JERUSALEM // Outside a corner cafe in East Jerusalem, Melad Awadallah spoke for the first time about being fired by an Israeli company that runs a factory in a West Bank settlement.

The company, SodaStream, which makes home-carbonated drink machines, made headlines this year when the Hollywood actress Scarlett Johansson signed up as a representative, forcing her to give up an eight-year role as a spokesperson for Oxfam, which opposes trade involving Israeli settlements.

Following the controversy, ­SodaStream invited journalists to tour its factory in the West Bank’s Mishor Adumim settlement, where it employed 500 Palestinians from the West Bank and East Jerusalem, 450 Arab Israelis and 350 Jewish Israelis. The workforce was presented as an example of peaceful coexistence between Jews and Palestinians.

But Arab-Israeli tensions have been on the rise since the kidnap and murder of three Jewish teenagers in June and the revenge killing of Palestinian teenager. That was followed by the ongoing Israeli assault on Gaza in response to rockets fired into Israel by militants there.

On July 3, Mr Awadallah, 25, and about 60 other Palestinian workers going on the night shift went to eat at the cafeteria first.

They found only two trays of food, Mr Awadallah said, one with chicken schnitzel, another with chicken drumsticks – barely enough for 60 people hungry after fasting for nearly 16 hours and facing a 12-hour shift.

“It wasn’t going to be enough for five people,” Mr Awadallah said. “People were angry and realised they wouldn’t be able to work without food – eating is energy, you know.”

When the workers complained and said they would not be able to work without proper food, a Jewish Russian manager told them to go home, Mr Awadallah said.

The following day, senior management called to tell the 60 workers they had been fired, he said.

“The workers weren’t protesting or being destructive – they simply smoked a cigarette and had a coffee to break the fast and were too weak to do anything much, so just sat there.”

A spokesman for SodaStream, Ben Thein, said workers had used the iftar meal as a “pretext to stir up a violent scene and disrupt production at the factory”.

He said adequate food had been served that night, including two choices of meat, four choices of sides and a complete salad bar.

He said the workers had become aggressive towards management.

“Incitement included threatening language and behaviour, including pushing managers,” Mr Thein said.

“SodaStream has zero tolerance towards any employer who practises violence or incites violence.”

However, the trade union representing the workers, WAC-Maan, says the dismissal of the workers was illegal.

“Management just decided to let the entire shift go, with no notice,” said Yoav Tamir, the union representative.

“We’re saying the staff should have their jobs reinstated and that firing them was illegal, it was done in an illegal way and they want to go back to work – so far we haven’t heard from the company,” he said.

“They were not given written notice of dismissal in writing on the premises of the factory.

“The workers were phoned the morning after they were sent home from the workplace and told their jobs had been terminated and they needed to return SodaStream property including their uniforms and ID cards.”

Mr Tamir said he did not know why there was such a quick deterioration between the Palestinian staff and Jewish management.

“The day before everything was fine with the meal – this is not the first time the company has provided food for the fast breaking meal for those workers, it’s not the first Ramadan for this company.”

Mr Awadallah had worked for SodaStream for nearly two years and described his relationship with the company as amicable. When he was fired he was earning between Dh 5,000 and Dh6,500 a month. Others fired that night had been with the company for nearly five years, he said.

The head of the WAC-Man union, Assaf Adiv, pointed out in a letter to SodaStream that “laying off workers, especially veteran workers is a drastic step that should not be taken across the board, and the law stipulates proceedings that prevent arbitrary or rash steps by managers” .

The letter, sent via his attorney Aya Bartenstein, also demands that the company “annul the layoffs of the 60 workers in the factory in Mishor Adumim, and their immediate return to work”.

Mr Awadallah said he believed the firings had demonstrated “a degree of racism”.

“They tried to tell us we were protesting about the war in Gaza, but if that was the case why would we have even bothered working there,” he said.

He said jobs at SodaStream offered relatively high wages for the West Bank, but there had been disputes with management in the past.

“Nobody knows the truth about the company, when media visit the company and interview staff saying they love their work – the reality is nobody likes it in terms of the treatment by the management — but the workers are scared to lose their jobs.

“The management don’t care about us, they would happily allow us to work 20-hour shifts,” he said.

Mr Tamir said that if the workers did not get their jobs back they were at least entitled to severance pay.

“SodaStream have always boasted about how there is coexistence in their factory and how they are doing some kind of favour to the Palestinians by giving them work – but here they should be doing them a favour by giving them their rights by law.”