As fighting rages in Gaza, a controversy of a different sort is brewing in the West Bank. SodaStream, the at-home carbonation system manufacturer that has been both condemned for operating a factory in the West Bank and lauded for its treatment of Palestinian employees, has reportedly fired 60 of them over a dispute concerning the food that workers received to break their Ramadan fast.
Haaretz reports that after night-shift workers informed management that they weren’t being provided with enough food to eat after their 16-hour fast ended—the factory observes Jewish dietary laws and workers are prohibited from bringing their own food—they were, according to their union’s representative, summarily fired.
The Times of Israel quotes SodaStream’s management as offering the following explanation for the large-scale layoffs: “Palestinian employees went on strike and shut down the production lines of the plant with no connection to food. We will not accept a situation where the workers, the moment food doesn’t appear, shut down the plant and demonstratively ignore their supervisors.”
While it’s difficult to understand how the strike could have both borne “no connection to food” and also occurred “the moment food doesn’t appear,” firing people for reporting workplace conditions unconducive to a comfortable religious practice seems potentially unlawful. Plus, not providing enough food for workers would seem to create an unproductive, if not unsafe, work environment.
In May, we reported on a documentary that explored the SodaStream controversy by focusing on one employee of the factory. The film, I argued then, while interesting, was asking the wrong question.
The Factory makes one honest, but crucial, mistake. It treats Abdallah’s moral dilemma as the one that matters, asking whether or not he personally should or should not be working for the company, and focusing on the attendant feelings of that decision. While Abdallah’s subjective experience is interesting and important, it’s not the moral dilemma at the heart of the controversy surrounding SodaStream.
The most important question that could have been addressed by the documentary is one that is never raised: Does Abdallah make the same amount of money as Valery, his Russian-Jewish counterpart? Does he have access to the same legal recourse should he be sexually harassed or break a finger? If not, you have a company paying different races different wages, and a geographic location giving unfair legal representation to different individuals based on their ethnicity.
This latest conflict between employees and management seems to suggest that SodaStream’s Palestinian workers are asking the same question.
Batya Ungar-Sargon is a freelance writer who lives in New York. Her Twitter feed is @bungarsargon.