The Arab Worker in the Era of Globalization

The Struggle for Jobs in Israel by Stephen Langfur On April 28, Omar Alami, an unemployed construction worker from Nazareth, visited the local branch of WAC (the Workers Advice Center)....

The Struggle for Jobs in Israel

On April 28, Omar Alami, an unemployed construction worker from Nazareth, visited the local branch of WAC (the Workers Advice Center). He held a referral from the Employment Bureau for a job interview. In Migdal ha-Emek, a nearby Jewish town, the A. Arenson construction company is building a large extension for Tower Semiconductors. Arenson needs workers.

Alami showed the referral to Assaf Adiv, the director of WAC. In an interview on May 25, Adiv told me: “My first response was, ‘Take the job!’ We went on to talk about other things, when suddenly I remembered an item I’d read the day before in an Arab paper called Panorama. It mentioned the Arenson project. It was a very short notice, saying that a group of laborers from the Arab village of Yafia had appeared for a Day of Orientation, preparatory to working there. During a break, the man in charge had yelled at them, sending them back to the Employment Bureau. Here they discovered that the Bureau had listed them all as job-refusers.

“This was a change from the pattern we are used to,” Adiv continued. “In the Arab sector, the Employment Bureau often sends people out to fictive job opportunities. The workers depend on the employer to sign a form, so as not to appear as refusers. The story of the Yafia workers was different. Here was a real job offer – and by Arenson, an established firm – yet all the workers got classified as refusers. It didn’t make sense. A big well-organized company is building a major project close to their homes, paying a dependable salary with social benefits – and a whole group refuses? Everyone? OK, I could understand if 10% didn’t want to work, or 20%, or even – for the sake of argument – 50%. But everyone?

“And here was Omar Alami, looking forward to his interview. I suspected the same thing would happen to him. I told him about the workers from Yafia. I asked him to call and let me know if anything sounded fishy.”

The background: employment in the building industry

Adiv’s suspicion, awakened by the item in Panorama, had a broader background, although without explicit reference to Arenson & Co.
In March 1993, Israeli PM Yitzhak Rabin imposed closure on the Occupied Territories, depriving 120,000 Palestinians of jobs in Israel. The policy created labor shortages in Israeli agriculture and construction. The government’s solution was to allow the import of foreign workers. They arrived by the tens of thousands from Eastern Europe, Thailand, China, the Philippines, Nigeria and elsewhere. The national Employment Service, whose task is to find jobs for Israelis, became the sole center for granting contractors permits to import workers. The law requires, however, that before the Service can issue such permits, it must first establish that no Israelis are available for the jobs.

There is one corruptive element in this equation: Foreign workers are cheaper than Israelis. For example, while an Israeli construction worker usually makes between $1300 and $1800 per month on a 47-hour work week, most of his foreign counterparts make between $600 and $700 on a 60-hour week (far below the legal minimum) – if they are lucky. Often they are not.

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