Made in a West Bank sweatshop

March 12, 2013

Eric Ruder debunks the claims of the Israeli company SodaStream to be a caretaker of the environment that does Palestinians a favor by giving them jobs.

SODASTREAM, THE Israeli corporation that manufactures do-it-yourself soda machines, is enjoying a dramatic increase in visibility. The company achieved marketing notoriety when the NFL rejected its Super Bowl ad in early February because it was deemed too critical of soft-drink giants Coke and Pepsi.

A few weeks later, the New York Times featured SodaStream in an article about the growing market for kitchen carbonation products. According to the sales pitch, SodaStream and similar devices reduce waste by cutting down on the use of disposable bottles, while allowing consumers to create "healthy" alternatives to high-sugar commercial sodas like Coke and Pepsi.

But not all of the attention SodaStream has garnered is so bubbly. That's because the core of SodaStream's product line is manufactured in a factory built in an illegal Israeli settlement, using Palestinian labor.

Activists around the world, including in the U.S., have organized actions calling on consumers and retail stores to boycott SodaStream as part of the global boycott, divestment and sanctions (BDS) movement to demand Palestinian civil rights.

Supporters of the BDS movement against Israel call on shoppers not to buy Sodastream
Supporters of the BDS movement against Israel call on shoppers not to buy Sodastream

SodaStream is a good target for a number of reasons. It manufactures products in a new niche market that it has so far dominated, but which is bound to produce competitors. Its global sales figures are taking off, nearly doubling in a single year to $436.3 million in 2012. SodaStream's products are sold in 39 countries and at some 35,000 stores worldwide--including major retailers like Macy's; Bed, Bath and Beyond; Bloomingdale's; Sears; Kmart and more--making it a prominent target in numerous countries.

Moreover, SodaStream has launched a multimillion-dollar advertising campaign to brand itself as "socially responsible." This has two important implications. First, SodaStream wants to appeal to consumers interested in sustainability and ethical corporate conduct, but many of these same consumers would be horrified to find out about the exploitative conditions at SodaStream's West Bank factory and the deception that SodaStream engages in to keep the stench of apartheid away from its "fun and fizzy" products.

Second, the arrogant executives at SodaStream seem to believe their own marketing, so their attempts to "sanitize" their business model of exploiting Palestinian labor in illegal settlements should provide regular opportunities to expose their self-serving messages.

TAKE, FOR example, the recent video released by SodaStream to showcase its "benevolence" in hiring Palestinian workers at their factory in the Mishor Adumim industrial park attached to the West Bank settlement of Ma'ale Adumim.

In the eight-minute video, the narrator explains that Rafi, a Palestinian worker at SodaStream, boards "a bus chartered by his Israeli employer SodaStream [that] collects him and a few other workers from the nearby towns" and whisks them past Palestinian villages and an Israeli checkpoint to the factory. SodaStream is "among the largest private employers in the West Bank where unemployment can reach 30 percent," notes the narrator.

Of course, the video doesn't mention that it's because of Israeli apartheid that Rafi is prohibited from living in the Ma'ale Adumim settlement, which is for Jewish settlers only; it's because of Israeli apartheid that Rafi must board a special bus to take him to his workplace; and it's because of Israel's strangulation of the Palestinian economy that it's unable to generate sufficient jobs.

The video also fails to note that Rafi must obtain special work permits to allow him to work at SodaStream. This makes Rafi and all Palestinian workers in Israeli settlements highly vulnerable, according to a report on SodaStream produced by, the organization that monitors firms complicit in Israel's occupation of Palestine:

The main criterion for receiving such a permit is a "security clearance," which attests that the worker's personal record in the Israeli security forces records is clear of any action or pronouncement which is defined as endangering Israel's security. Ironically, involvement in a labor disagreement with an employer is also defined as a security risk. Thus, workers jeopardize their work permit if they demand anything of their employers.

By losing this permit, workers do not only lose their current employment; they also lose the ability to work in settlements in the future. Therefore, fear of losing the work permit most often overrides the workers' desire to demand their rights.

Though the video celebrates SodaStream's generous wages, Palestinian production workers at the Mishor Adumim factory held a protest in 2008 to demand a higher income and better conditions. The demonstration was organized with help from Kav LaOved, an Israeli organization that tracks labor abuses by Israeli firms in the Occupied Territories.

"The Palestinian workers say that they are being discriminated against, they don't even earn half of the [Israeli] minimum wage, and the work conditions are terrible," explained Salwa Elinat, a staffer at Kav LaOved at the time. "If they demand their rights, they will be fired. It is like this in many factories in this area, but SodaStream's factory is one of the worst."

This no doubt explains why, according to a recent survey, more than 80 percent of Palestinians working at firms in illegal settlements would quit and work elsewhere if given the opportunity.

SODASTREAM INSISTS that it cares about sustainability and the environment, but this claim is only believable if we ignore the hypocrisy at the company's core.

The Mishor Adumim industrial park got its start in the mid-1970s, not so long after the Six Day War in 1967 that ended with Israel occupying the West Bank and Gaza. According to the report, when the Ma'aleh Adumim settlement was officially declared in 1975, it was:

among the largest land expropriations in the history of the occupation, spanning a vast area from Jerusalem to the city of Jericho...[T]oday, [this settlement] occupies the largest land area of all Israeli settlements and, with its 35,000 residents, ranks third in population. Because of its scale, its location and the difficulties associated with relocating such a large and established population, Ma'aleh Adumim is, today, considered to be a major obstacle to any future peace agreement.

SodaStream is one of the most lucrative and high-profile corporations anchored in an industrial park in one of Israel's largest settlements. So when the company talks about "sustainability," it means sustainability of the occupation--as opposed to the Palestinian towns of Abu Dis, Azarya, A-Tur, Issauya, Han El Akhmar, Anata and Nebbi Mussa that used to exist where Israel's illegal settlement now stands.

And when SodaStream promotes itself as a caretaker of "natural resources," it leaves out how it is complicit in the long-term theft of water resources from Palestinian residents of the West Bank--shamefully, with the blessing of the Palestinian Authority.

According to the World Health Organization, individuals need access to 100 liters of water per day. Israeli settlers in the West Bank consume 400 liters per day, while Palestinians receive just 73 liters--and Palestinian Bedouins as little as 10 liters.

Halfway through SodaStream's smarmy self-promotional video, CEO Daniel Birnbaum practically pops with pride as he declares, "At SodaStream, we build bridges, not walls. It's a fantastic sanctuary of coexistence and an example of peace in a region that is so troubled and so needs hope." He goes on to assert that the campaign against SodaStream is based on "manipulative" and "untrue" claims made by the company's critics.


SodaStream has been repeatedly caught mislabeling its products as "Made in Israel" in order to avoid customs fees when exporting to the European Union. An EU-Israel Trade Agreement adopted in 2000 allows goods from Israel--but not the West Bank--to enter without paying such fees. The EU has explicitly stated that Israel's settlements are "illegal under international law, constitute an obstacle to peace and threaten to make a two-state solution impossible."

So who's being manipulative?

Even more revolting is the idea that SodaStream is a beacon of "peaceful coexistence." As the website of the Italian BDS campaign explains:

To speak of "peaceful coexistence" between people who do not have equal rights and equal social, economic and political opportunities is absurd. Among SodaStream employees, there is a marked difference between the conditions of the occupiers and those who suffer under occupation. For example, just as in apartheid South Africa, the Black majority was allowed to enter areas reserved for whites only in order to work, so do the Palestinians depend on the occupying power for work permits.

The slogan of SodaStream's advertising campaign is: "If you love the bubbles, set them free." The BDS campaign has a different slogan: "Free Palestine." Or as a sign carried by a protester against SodaStream put it, "Burst the bubble on this pop, military occupation has to stop."

Further Reading

From the archives