Representatives of the social protest movement in Baqa al-Gharbiyeh

The struggle to empower Arab women and assist them in obtaining agricultural work did not start last summer, and was not a result of the social protest. This struggle started six years ago, with a special project to open jobs in agriculture for Arab women, with all peripheral benefits and according to the law. Getting wage slips which outline reductions from wages and peripheral benefits may seem to be the absolute minimum, but for many Arab women who are desperate to work this is an achievement. Especially when most farmers prefer to employ imported laborers under even poorer terms.

The struggle to empower Arab women and assist them in obtaining agricultural work did not start last summer, and was not a result of the social protest. This struggle started six years ago, with a special project to open jobs in agriculture for Arab women, with all peripheral benefits and according to the law. Getting wage slips which outline reductions from wages and peripheral benefits may seem to be the absolute minimum, but for many Arab women who are desperate to work this is an achievement. Especially when most farmers prefer to employ imported laborers under even poorer terms.

Some 80% of Arab women do not work, while half of their children live under the poverty line, yet this issue did not become part of the social protest’s discourse. For this reason, the Workers Advice Center (WAC-Ma’an) decided that if Mohammed won’t come to the mountain, the mountain will have to come to Mohammed. At the end of October, hundreds of Arab women, all WAC members, came to Tel Aviv’s Rothschild Boulevard to make their voices heard. After marching the boulevard together with activists from the social protest movement, they were hosted at Beit Ha’am (“the people’s house”) for debates and workshops on the subject of women’s employment.

Now it was time for the social protest activists to pay a return visit to Baqa al-Gharbiyeh and continue to build on common ground, working towards social justice for all – including Arab women.

WAC’s Baqa branch was a little small for the 60 people who crowded into the hall. Among those present, some 20 women were prominent. These women had undergone a gradual process of understanding that they could be an important contributing factor in their family finances. It should also be noted that this month marks the 100 anniversary of the women’s demonstrations in Lawrence, Massachusetts. The women there adopted the slogan “bread and roses” inspired by James Oppenheim’s poem, published in The American Magazine in 1911. “We want bread, but we want roses too!” these women shouted. This same slogan, with an emphasis on work and empowerment, was also adopted by WAC as the title of its annual art exhibition whose aim is to raise funds for the Arab women placement and empowerment project.

Wafa Tayara, former agricultural worker, directs the WAC center at Baqa. She says WAC’s aim is not merely to get women out of the cycle of poverty and away from the ra’is (contractor) who takes a large cut of their wages. The aim is also to improve their lives and their place in society.

“Minister of Industry, Trade and Labor Shalom Simhon complains that Arab women are spoiled,” she says. “He claims they don’t want to work, but in reality they want to work very much but are confronted with a labor market that shuts them out. At WAC, we pound on every door in our attempt to persuade the government to stop subsidizing the farmers by importing exploited Thai workers at the expense of Arab workers.”

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