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S.H.: Once I got home, I asked my employer for the rest of my salary. He made it clear that if I don't return to work he would get someone to replace me.
From the field

S.H. returned home to the West Bank for fear of coronavirus; his employer refused to pay his full wages

After staying in Israel for 21 days due to measures Israel imposed to restrict the spread of the coronavirus, S.H. decided to return home to the village of Zawata, near Nablus, for fear of getting infected. In response, his employer refused to pay him his wages and threatened to replace him with another worker.

I am 40 years old and have four little children. I work in Israel as a metalworker. About three months ago, I started work at an iron plant in central Israel, and then the pandemic broke out. At first, the Israeli authorities announced a lockdown and some public transport stopped. I decided to stay at work to continue making a living. Everybody said the situation could last months and I have to provide for my kids.

The plant I worked for arranged a place for us to sleep. I stayed there with nine other workers from the West Bank, and we maintained a safe distance from each other. Our employer brought us food and anything else we needed, including disinfectant. At work, we wore masks and gloves. After three weeks, I saw that the number of coronavirus patients in Israel and the West Bank kept rising, and decided to return home to take care of my family and my health. The Palestinian government urged workers to come back and stay in the West Bank. I felt it was the right thing to do.

I told my employer I was going home and asked for my pay for the 21 days I’d worked. He demanded that I stay and keep working, because he knew that if I went home, it would be very difficult to come back and he’d committed to supply orders for his clients. I insisted on going home. There were four other workers with me who also wanted to leave. In the end, he paid every one of us 1,000 shekels (~285 USD), which is only a small part of what we were owed.

The journey home was grueling. I got off next to the Za’atra checkpoint and since there was no public transporta, I walked 12 kilometers to Nablus. I went through several Palestinian Authority checkpoints, where they told me where to call in case of emergency and ordered me to stay quarantined in a separate room once I got home. I made sure to follow all the instructions.

Once I got home, I kept calling my employer and asked him to transfer the rest of my salary. After two weeks, he sent me 3,000 shekels (~857 USD), but he still owes me 2,000 shekels (~570 USD).

He made it clear that if I don’t return to work, he’ll get someone to replace me. But I’m afraid to go back to Israel because of the high number of infections. I don’t want to jeopardize my health and my family’s health.

* The testimony was given to B'Tselem field researcher Salma a-Deb'i on 27 April 2020 by telephone.