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.
In addition, an employer must pay the Israeli worker’s social benefits. The Foreign Workers’ Law was amended in 1999, requiring the employer to pay such benefits for the foreign worker as well, including health insurance. According to Adi Laksar of Workers’ Hotline, the amendment is not enforced in the least.
But the mire – or gold mine, depending where you stand – goes deeper: Most foreign workers pay between $1000 and $4000 dollars for the privilege of laboring two years or so in Israel. The law forbids personnel companies to extract such payment, but the fact is, most do. (Annual Report of Kav la’Oved, 2000.) Given the number of foreign workers, these fees amount to hundreds of millions of dollars – all under the table. The windfalls create an interest to expel those workers who have already paid in order to bring in new ones.
The workers, expecting riches, often take loans at home to amass the required sum. Thus they arrive in debt and are easily exploitable. What is more, Israeli law puts them in thrall to their employers: they may not change jobs or dwellings without permission. In construction and agriculture, 90% or more of employers take and hold their passports. This act too is illegal, but no employer has yet been prosecuted. (Ibid.)
All these factors contribute to make foreign workers a potential bonanza for anyone who can obtain or grant a permit to import them. Several groups have been extremely well-placed: (1) personnel firms and contractors who can make a case for needing import licenses; and (2) officials at the national Employment Service, which is empowered to grant them.
By 1996, temptations on both sides had become irresistible to some. After closing hours, certain top figures at the Employment Service opened the doors to contractors and the heads of personnel companies. These cozy nocturnal sessions, lasting into the wee small hours, generated thousands of permits, not only for foreign workers from outside, but also for Palestinians from the Occupied Territories. (The latter, too, are cheaper than Israelis, and thousands paid $300 monthly each – almost half their wage – for the permit.) On December 8, 2000, journalists Mordechai Gilat and Michal Grayevski exposed this “night club” in the first of a series of major articles in YediotAharonot. Here, for example, is what one senior clerk told them:
“Many of these big-time contractors saw a chance to make millions without so much as building a house. They preferred to deal in the import of cheap labor. They had connections in the right places, and by exerting various pressures they were able to leave those nightly trysts with promises or licenses for bringing in thousands of laborers from the Far East or Romania. They collected from each worker between $2000 and $4000, funneled huge sums into their own pockets, and counted the money all the way to the bank. No one dared stand up, shout or burst this pocket of infection. Everyone was scared, and still is, to speak out in public.” 
The gold mine could only operate, however, if people in Israel refused to work. As WAC pointed out in a press release (December 12), the Employment Service occupied a strategic position: it could both grant the licenses to import labor and define local people as refusing.
One sees the effect in construction. From 1996 until the year 2000, during a slowdown in this sector, the total number employed declined by 18,000 (from 245,000 to 227,000), but the number of Israelis (including, of course, the Arab citizens of Israel) declined by 35,000 (from 150,000 to 115,000).  Thus the number of non-Israelis working in construction rose during this period, partly offsetting the drop in Israeli workers.
As for the 35,000 Israelis who lost jobs in construction, for the most part, they swelled the ranks of the unemployed in the Arab sector. Several Arab towns reached official unemployment rates of over 20%, more than twice the national average.
This growing unemployment fueled the volcano that erupted on the Israeli side of the Green Line in October 2000. The outbreak did not last long. In the West Bank and Gaza, however, it continued, leading the Labor government to impose total closure. Some 25,000 Palestinians from the Territories could no longer reach construction sites in Israel. The contractors asked permission, therefore, to import 20,000 more workers.
From the top, at this point, came unexpected resistance. The then Treasury Secretary, Avraham Shochat, and Labor Secretary, Ra’anan Cohen, were reeling from the discontent in Israel’s Arab sector. They resisted the request. The Association of Contractors reacted by turning to Israel’s Supreme Court (Bagatz), hoping to talk the judges into letting them have the foreign workers. Israelis, they said, do not want to do the hard work involved in construction. This claim is of major importance to the contractors. It led one of Gilat’s informants to burst out laughing: “Offer Israeli Arabs today a wage of $1750 a month, instead of the $625 foreign workers get, and see if they don’t go running back to the scaffolds!”
The conflict is not between foreign and Israeli workers. Both are victims of collusion between employers, government and the Histadrut (the National Labor Federation) in the heady era of globalization. The employers seek to make money – that’s to be expected. But the government fails to enforce the law concerning “entry fees”, minimum wage, social benefits, and withholding of passports. As for the Histadrut, rather than represent the workers, both foreign and Israeli, it exploits their vulnerability. (See Note 3 below.)
These, then, are some of the forces affecting employment in Israel’s construction industry. Gilat and Grayevski do not name the contractors who took part in the nefarious “night club”. (I do not suggest that the Arenson firm was among them.) Their revelations, however, serve to show the climate that develops in a globalized economy, when the powers-that-be let imported labor be cheaper than domestic.
This broader background too, says Assaf Adiv, was in his mind when he asked Alami to call him after the interview if anything sounded fishy.
May 2. After a phone conversation with Alami, Adiv went to the Nazareth Employment Bureau where an Arenson representative, Ofer Meshulam, was conducting interviews. The workers told Adiv that the job conditions sounded extremely difficult, requiring long hours at low pay. “They had very negative feelings about it,” Adiv reports. “I told them to persist and take the jobs – we could deal with the conditions afterwards. We exchanged phone numbers. The next stage would be a day of orientation.”
May 7, Orientation Day. Twenty-three workers arrived. At noon, during lunch break, Adiv joined them and heard their accounts. “The workers told me,” he says, “that the conditions were even harder than those described at the interviews. The work would be dangerous, they said, requiring twelve hours a day with a half hour off for lunch.” (See box for Arenson’s response.)
“They were ready to give it up,” says Adiv. “They said, ‘It’s clear they’re not interested in us. It’s hopeless. Let them just sign that they don’t want us, so the Bureau doesn’t give us refusals.'”
By this time other WAC members had joined Adiv. He reports: “We encouraged them to take the jobs despite everything. ‘ You have a right to work,’ we said. ‘They know this. Maybe they’re trying to scare you off. We’ll back you up. If the pay is less than legal, we’ll sue.’
“Because of the episode with the Yafia workers,” Adiv told me, “we had come with a printed petition, saying, ‘We want to work!’ After ten minutes of discussion, all the workers signed it. Then they returned to the orientation. When it was over, the company photocopied their identity cards in order to make tags, and two minibuses from the company took them home, arranging to pick them up next morning.”
May 8. “The buses did pick them up next morning,” says Adiv. “Their number by this time had dropped to eighteen. They told me they’d arrived at 6:30 as arranged and stood in the gate and waited, but no one met them. At 8:30 they phoned me and said, ‘No one wants to deal with us. There’s something wrong.'”
Adiv set out from Haifa. When he arrived, he saw a clerk from the Employment Bureau getting into his car. He asked what had happened. The clerk said the men had argued about salary. Then he drove away.
The workers described the morning’s events as follows: They had been sent from gate to gate. At 9:00 a functionary from Arenson told them they weren’t wanted and they should leave. They asked him to sign their papers to show they had reported in good faith – otherwise they wouldn’t leave. The functionary said the police would throw them out. Then two more persons appeared: Ofer Meshulam and a clerk from the Employment Bureau. Meshulam said that if they failed to accept the wage of 25 shekels ($6.25) per hour, they would be considered as having refused.
Please note: On a standard work week of 47 hours, this wage would come to $1133 per month, about $350 less than the national average for employees in construction, though above the minimum wage of $777.
Adiv notes that Meshulam did not deal with each of the workers separately. It is improper procedure to register someone as a job-refuser unless the person refuses individually. According to the workers’ account as given to Adiv, Meshulam did not consult them one by one, and they were still negotiating about the wage when the meeting broke up. Meshulam left, followed by the Bureau clerk – just as Adiv and other WAC members arrived.
“We asked the workers to choose representatives,” says Adiv. “They elected two. Then one of the representatives phoned Meshulam and said, ‘We’re here at the gate and we want to work.’
“Meshulam answered, ‘It’s out of my hands. Go to the Employment Bureau.’ So the workers phoned the Bureau in Nazareth and asked, ‘What’s going on? Your clerk was here and disappeared!’
“The Bureau manager answered, ‘Sorry, you refused to work. We’ve registered you as refusers.’
“We were all a bit startled,” says Adiv, “though we’d sensed this coming. It didn’t surprise us either that the clerk from the Employment Bureau had appeared and disappeared so conveniently.
“We began to contact the media. The workers wanted to go to the Bureau and make a commotion, but we proposed another course: to compel Arenson to accept them. The objective was jobs, not compensation. We convinced the workers to hold a vigil next morning in front of the site.”
May 9. Adiv: “WAC organized a bus. At 8 a.m., the workers – now nineteen in number – lined up at the front gate. They held signs in Arabic, saying, “Arenson doesn’t want us because we’re Arabs”, “Open jobs for Arabs”, “We’re not lazy!”, “Down with unemployment and discrimination!”, and “No to the collusion between the Employment Bureau and Arenson!”
“Understand,” Adiv told me, “This is not just a building site. Tower Semiconductors already has a plant here, and the project is to add another 45,000 square meters. The gate where we were standing is the main gate to the whole complex. Therefore, the Tower employees noticed us as they were going in to work. We had a local TV station there, and Video ’48 was filming everything. The vigil, in other words, had all the appearance of something that might make noise.
“Well, literally within minutes, an official came out and said, ‘The manager of Tower wants to meet you. He wants you to explain the problem. We want to help. Tower is a company that employs people from all parts of the population.’ To a man behind him he said, ‘Danny, prepare soft drinks and sandwiches for these people. Who is your representative?’
“The two representatives went in, together with Michal Schwartz of WAC. The manager of Tower heard the complaint and voiced his concern, adding that he would speak with Arenson about it. Schwartz answered that the vigil would continue, as well as legal action. ‘The workers are determined to get work, and they can also keep others from coming to work here.'”
The meeting lasted twenty minutes. Video ’48 remained outside with the vigil. The following account is extracted from its film:
A short time after the meeting with Tower, a construction supervisor came out and said, “We’re taking everyone to work. Who wants to work?”
“All of us,” answered the men.
“It’s not that simple,” said Adiv. “Yesterday your company notified the Bureau that these men refused. We demand guarantees.
We demand a statement in writing that Arenson accepts the workers. We also demand a signed document from the Employment Bureau canceling the refusals.”
“No problem,” said the supervisor.
Then Ofer Meshulam arrived and made a statement: “Arenson employs 170 minority-group workers from Galilee on the site (i.e. Arabs – SL), compared to 60 foreign workers from Romania. One of the supervisors is a Druze. We plead – I stress plead – for Israelis from any and every part of the population to come work with us here and at every other site in the country. …We shall now sign a document, saying we want you to come to work, and you will commit yourselves to come to work, and we will appeal, in the name of Arenson and Company, to the Employment Bureau, that they should not define you as refusers.”
The workers were surprised at this sudden eagerness to employ them. Adiv said, however, “Let’s leave the past. We will continue to follow this case. I hope very much that this will be an opening for more workers from the area.”
Meshulam then drew up the document. He phoned Shmuel Shukrun from the Employment Service, who added the sentence: “We point out specifically that the action of the Employment Service in recruiting the workers and connecting them with Arenson has been a most praiseworthy one.” The paper was faxed back and forth, gaining the necessary signatures. The workers put on their company tags.
After the group photo, Assaf Adiv addressed the workers: “Don’t think we’ve accomplished something and now it’s over. It isn’t over till we’re unionized!”
June 1. The workers are still with the Arenson project in Migdal ha-Emek. The jobs, they report, are perfectly normal. They work eight hours per day. They earn 25 shekels per hour. They receive the social benefits the law requires.
|From Challenge # 68 (July -August 2001)}