SodaStream in the West Bank: A Beacon of Hope or Part of the Problem?

sodastreamA commercial featuring Scarlett Johansson sipping a glass full of SodaStream caused uproar a few months back after it aired during the Super Bowl game. Shortly after, Johansson announced she would end her eight-year relationship with Oxfam, citing “fundamental difference of opinion in regards to the boycott.” Whether or not Scarlett Johansson continues her humanitarian work is relatively inconsequential, but her celebrity status has helped spark a much-needed debate over the complicated conflict between companies like SodaStream and backers of the BDS movement, opening up a conversation about whether or not the West Bank’s SodaStream factory is a beacon of hope or part of the problem.

During a HuffPost Live interview at the end of January, Editor and Chief of The Jewish Daily Forward Jane Eisner, see-sawed between agreeing the company was doing good work, and admitting that Palestinians may not be benefiting from the company’s presence in the West Bank, and she was not the last to express mixed feelings on the subject. There remains a growing controversy as to whether SodaStream’s presence in the West Bank is a beacon of hope, employing Palestinians, giving them fair wages, and creating a harmonious work environment, or whether it is a part of an expanding problem, contributing to the ongoing oppression of Palestinian citizens.

By the first week of February it seemed Eisner’s publication was leaning toward casting SodaStream as savior to Palestinian workers in the West Bank, publishing testimonials from workers who boasted they knew “millions” of people who would love to work at the SodaStream factory, and assuring Forward reporter Nathan Jeffay that SodaStream complies to all labor laws and that employees receive the best working conditions there are. Evidently workers are all so overjoyed to work at SodaStream that they didn’t even have complaints about receiving wages below the Israeli minimum wage. So is SodaStream in the West Bank really part of the problem, or is it in fact the beacon of hope that supporters of the company suggest it is?

Mishor Adumim is the settlement where one of SodaStream’s 20 factories is currently running. It is built on land originally expropriated from Palestinian villages, which some say prevents Palestinian ventures from creating jobs and inhibits the ability of those nearby villages to grow and develop. The reported claims of contented Palestinian workers, published by several news sources, may be distracting SodaStream supporters from the daily exploitation of Palestinian workers. The majority of these workers are not eager to speak out against their only means of livelihood. SodaStream has defended its West Bank factory in the past, claiming to provide fair wages and benefits to Palestinian workers who would find it difficult to find work elsewhere, but if SodaStream is the beacon of hope it purports to be, it certainly does not help their cause that they are amongst the several hundred factories benefiting from tax breaks and other advantages, factories who exploit their workers and do not always operate in accordance with labor laws.

SodaStream CEO Daniel Birnbaum has gone on record to say he wants everyone at SodaStream to feel equal, “with the same pay, the same benefits, the same opportunity to advance and become managers.” Birnbaum calls SodaStream a “model for peace,” but in January, Reuters reporter Noah Browning quoted a SodaStream employee who confirmed, “there is a lot of racism [at the factory]” saying that almost all the managers are Israeli and the West Bank employees are afraid to ask for raises, due to the understanding that they can be easily replaced. West Bank’s SodaStream may want to be a beacon of hope, but they are most likely part of the problem. While SodaStream spins tales of their “model of peace,” Head of Palestinian Workers Union, Shaher Saad maintains that “settlement and occupation will never lead to peace,” saying he supports the boycott that may someday lead to land being returned to Palestinian ownership.

Commentary by Sandra Pugliese