Thousands of sweatshops fuel struggling Palestinian economy; But fatal fire shows risk in unregulated sites


ABU EL ASJA, West Bank -- A fire that killled 16 young factory workers in the West Bank city of Hebron last week has opened a window on a disturbing side of the struggling Palestinian economy: a large number of small, unregulated sweatshops throughout the West Bank and Gaza.

In sprawling Hebron alone, there are about 2,000 factories, less than one-fourth of them licensed, turning out everything from shoes to shampoo, says Jamal Shobaky, a local member of the Palestinian Legislative Council. Officials say many lack the most elementary safety equipment.

In Gaza as well, the economy is made up largely of small-scale workshop factories, often family-owned.

"You don't have a health and safety regulatory body and inspectors," says Alex Pollock, who is in charge of a United Nations program that finances small enterprises in the Palestinian territories.

Until now, ensuring safe workplaces has taken a back seat to building up an economy hobbled by years of occupation and further wracked by closures of the Israeli borders that kept Palestinians from jobs in Israel and caused the unemployment rate to rise.

The site of Thursday's fire was a death trap: a small cigarette lighter assembly plant in a window- less room of a residential building with only one narrow exit. The 16 victims, almost all young women ages 18 to 35, were trapped inside after an exploding cigarette lighter apparently started the fire.

It could have been more tragic, said Hasib Nashashibi, executive director of the Palestinian human rights group LAW. It occurred during school hours, so none of the children living in the building were at home.

The lighters were apparently bought in China and filled with lighter fluid at the factory. The owner was reported to have been in China at the time of the fire. The factory's supervisor was held by police for questioning.

Hebron Mayor Mustafa Natshe said the factory was registered as a cold storage plant for fruits and vegetables.

Many of the victims were from this tiny village outside Hebron, where a vehicle was dispatched at 7 every morning to take them to the factory. They made $150 to $200 a month. Most had started working at the factory only recently. They complained of having to stand for long hours, with a half-hour break for lunch, said Saeed Khallaf, uncle of five of the victims.

The north Hebron neighborhood where the factory was located also contains small assembly operations for plastic articles, shampoo, shoes and baskets. Neighbors complained repeatedly to city authorities about a chemical smell, Khallaf said.

Local officials trace the factories to the period of Israeli occupation, which has been phased out since a peace accord was signed in 1993. Many of the hidden workshops were set up to evade steep Israeli taxes, they say.

These makeshift workplaces offered employment when Israeli authorities, fearing terror attacks, closed off access to Israel from the West Bank.

Some assemble goods under contract to Israeli industries.

"There's a massive informal economy," said Lex Takkenberg, a key U.N. official based in Gaza, "Thousands of informal, home-based companies and workshops outside any government oversight whatsoever."

Licenses don't necessarily bring safety, he said: "The main problem is lack of standards; there's no law that you have to abide by."

Shock and outrage over the deaths led a number of local organizations to join in calling a general strike for two days last week, leaving Hebron's usually bustling streets strangely quiet.

People from all over the West Bank arrived by the hundreds in cars and minivan taxis and by bus to offer condolences to family members and neighbors in the victims' village. Women mourned under a large tent near the school. The men stood in a long, formal row in the schoolyard to greet each new group of mourners. Young men moved through the crowd serving small cups of strong black coffee.

As a group of fathers sat in silent mourning, many family members and villagers demanded answers and a clear sign from the Palestinian Authority that it would correct the problem.

"The one who is responsible is the government," said Khallaf. "It is the responsibility of the P. A. and the municipality. We hope there will be a limit" on the factories.

Addressing the mourners by loudspeaker, lawmaker Jamal Shobaky tried to reassure them, saying a committee of the parliament would investigate the problem.

"We will put it on the agenda of the government," he said.

An effort has been under way for some time to shift factories out of residential areas. An aid group funded by the United States, called American Near East Aid, has built an environmentally safe $800,000 light-industry complex on the outskirts of Hebron. Opened a few months ago, it remains only half-filled.

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