“I can bring a million people who want to work here,” boasted Ahmed Nasser, taking a break from his job as a SodaStream assembly line worker.
Nasser spoke to the Forward from SodaStream’s main production plant, which is located in the Mishor Adumim industrial park within the settlement of Ma’ale Adumim in the occupied West Bank. Controversy over the plant’s location was reignited by the company’s recent decision to sign actress Scarlett Johansson, who will debut as a company spokesperson in a high-profile commercial to be broadcast on Super Bowl Sunday. Critics have also alleged that SodaStream is guilty of mistreating its workers.
But Nasser, a 28-year-old who has been with the company for two years, said that employees receive “the best conditions there are” and “everything according to the law.” He added that he receives an hour-and-a-half worth of breaks in a standard 12-hour shift, and that prayer times are not deducted from break allowances.
Nasser lives in Ramallah, the power base of the Palestinian political elite that is opposed to settlement employment. But he said that he does not feel antagonism from the local population because of his work at SodaStream. He was happy to be photographed. Asked whether he changes out of his SodaStream shirt before returning home, he said no. “It’s my job — I’m not shy about it,” he commented.
When the Forward visited an assembly line for gas canister valves earlier in the day, it found the normal settlement power dynamic turned on its head. Nadia Safaf, a 50-year-old settler from Ma’ale Adumim, was working, supervised by shift manager Nabeel Besharat, a Palestinian from Ramallah who started at the company four years ago — three years after she did. Besharat’s line manager is an East Jerusalem Palestinian.
Safaf said that the work is hard, but she has no complaints about the mixing of cultures. The Arabs she works under and alongside are “very good people.” Her colleagues include Ptiha Abu-Selat, a 30-year-old woman from Jericho, who said she is happy in her job and that in her city the factory is “famous” for good employment. These interviews, like others at the plant, were conducted out of earshot of Israeli managers and did not involve on-record or off-record complaints of labor abuses, or of receiving pay below the Israeli minimum wage.
When Besharat was questioned about working in a settlement, he replied: “This is the big question, but for us it’s not a problem. We didn’t build settlements here — we’re working in a factory. I used to work in East Jerusalem, and I think it’s the same thing.”
What does he think about the Palestinian Authority’s declared desire to stop Palestinians from working in settlements? “If they make other opportunities in the Palestinian areas, they can, but they need to make jobs and ensure good pay for workers.”
Mishor Adumim, like many other settlements, is built on land originally expropriated from Palestinian villages. According to a February 2009 report by the Israeli human rights group B’Tselem, the expropriation in this case has severely limited the ability of those nearby villages to expand and develop. But asked about the argument, heard from the P.A., that Israeli control of large parts of the West Bank is holding back Palestinian ventures that would create jobs, Besharat said, “I think we have to stop putting all our faults on the Israeli side.”
The various production rooms at the Mishor Adumim facility all feed their products to a final assembly line, where the carbonators are put together and packaged, ready for shipping together with canisters, bottles and syrups. It is a large, clean room, with a smell of traditional Arabic cardamom-flavored coffee, which is widely drunk by Palestinians and Israeli Arabs.
The Forward visited in the final hour of a shift, and the 120 employees there didn’t appear to be working particularly hard, with many chatting animatedly. They sat on high chairs with padded backs around a long surface around which products are passed, gaining their various components as they make their way toward the conveyor belt that takes away cartons ready for shipping.
At the plant’s cafeteria, Palestinian employees also seemed at ease, though they were clearly aware of the current international controversy over Johansson’s new role at the company. During the Forward’s visit, SodaStream CEO Daniel Birnbaum took to the cafeteria floor to give some 250 Palestinian workers a kind of pep talk about the issue, urging them to ignore the political attacks. “We are making history for the Palestinian people and the Israeli people,” he told them in Hebrew, followed by a translator who rendered his comments into Arabic. Birnbaum reassured the workers about their jobs and said he wanted to bring “more and more hands” into the factory as SodaStream grows.
The Palestinians applauded these comments. Birnbaum also said, with a flourish, “Scarlett Johansson would be proud of you!” And at the sound of Johansson’s name — even before the translation — applause among the assembly of mostly male, 30-something Palestinian workers burst out again, palpably louder.
Birnbaum stressed the company’s declared ethos of equality. “I want everybody here – Jew, Israeli Arab, Palestinian Arab, Russian, Ethiopian — to feel equal, with the same pay, the same benefits, the same opportunity to advance and become managers,” he said.
Speaking to the Forward from his office in the plant, Birnbaum claimed he maintains the facility in Mishor Adumim out of loyalty to some 500 Palestinians who are among the plant’s 1,300 employees. While other employees could relocate on the other side of the Green Line if the plant moved, the West Bank Palestinian workers could not, and would suffer financially, he argued.
“We will not throw our employees under the bus to promote anyone’s political agenda,” he said, adding that he “just can’t see how it would help the cause of the Palestinians if we fired them.”
The decision to locate SodaStream’s now contentious plant in this industrial park within the boundaries of the West Bank settlement Ma’ale Adumim, about 15 minutes outside Jerusalem, predated Birnbaum’s arrival. It was a choice made by company founder Peter Wiseburgh back in the 1990s, long before SodaStream was taken over by the Fortissimo Capital fund, its current owners, who appointed Birnbaum to head the firm in 2007.
Birnbaum said that if he could turn back the clock, he would “never” have established a production plant on an Israeli Jewish settlement in the occupied West Bank. In fact, he said, its location has turned out to be “a pain in the ass.”
But though he wouldn’t have opened the factory at its current site, Birnbaum said that its presence here is now a reality, and he won’t bow to political pressure to close the plant — even though the company is about to open a huge new facility in the Negev, within Israel’s internationally recognized boundaries, that will replicate all functions of the West Bank plant and dwarf it.
Birnbaum added that if a Palestinian state comes into being, as is the aim of current U.S.-brokered talks between Israel and the Palestinian Authority, SodaStream will also be happy to stay and pay its taxes to the new Palestinian state.
“We already have factories under the control of the Chinese, the Germans, the Americans and many other countries,” he said. “So what’s the problem to have a factory in the Palestinian state-to-be? We don’t give a hoot where the factory is going to be.”
Birnbaum’s adviser, Maurice Silber, said that within the company, “everybody is against the occupation.” But it does not follow, he said, that because SodaStream operates in an occupied area, it violates human rights. Eventually, Silber said, SodaStream could become the “seed of the future Palestinian economy.”
Contact Nathan Jeffay at email@example.com