Published in The Marker, 19 July 2016. Written by Michal Schwartz and Wafa Tiara
The precarious employment of migrant laborers causes unemployment among Israelis willing to work in agriculture, particularly Arab women
Marketing vegetables directly from grower to consumer in farms and town squares around the country is the latest trend in Israel. Growers are protesting the high cuts taken by middlemen, which makes agriculture all but unfeasible while pushing up consumer prices. At the same time, they are appealing directly to consumers who enjoy cheaper produce while supporting Israeli farmers who nurture the soil of the homeland, and also throwing a punch at the large corrupt supermarket conglomerates.
The problem is that the Israeli public, which supports growers who protest injustice, are not aware that the growers themselves are also part of the cause of injustice – Israelis don’t stop to ask themselves who is working in the fields and greenhouses throughout the land. The agricultural sector in Israel is underwritten by a workforce of some 25,000 Thai laborers and 1,000 Sri Lankan laborers, who are willing to work far longer than eight hours a day for minimum wage. These migrant laborers fill some 60% of agricultural jobs in Israel.
Moreover, a program has recently been announced to train students from developing countries to use innovative Israeli agricultural technologies which, in practice, will act as a conduit for bringing further laborers to the Israeli agricultural sector. The number of students who have arrived has already reached 4,000, which is 16% of all migrant agricultural labor in Israel, and each year this number increases. It turns out that since 2013, when Israel and Thailand signed an agreement on increasing the sum that workers pay to contract labor firms, these firms have found a way of bringing cheap workers under the guise of training – and the number of students in the program tripled.
This precarious work for migrant labor causes unemployment among Israelis who are willing to work in agriculture as a way out of poverty – in particular Arab women. These women cannot compete with cheap labor which is available 24 hours a day, therefore they are cast aside. Of 422,000 Arab Israeli women between the ages of 19 and 65, only 33% are employed, compared with 83% of Jewish women in the same age group. The main reason for this is the lack of jobs, which is a chronic problem in Arab towns.
The lower the level of education among Arab women, the higher the unemployment. Most Arab women, some 76%, have 12 years’ education or less, and only 28% of these are employed. This is the group which actively seeks work in agriculture. These women could be taken on in this sector and thus climb out of poverty, and it wouldn’t cost the government a penny. However, contrary to recommendations from economists at the Finance Ministry and the Bank of Israel, the governments of Israel have encouraged the agricultural sector to become dependent on migrant labor, instead of subsidizing this sector as common in Western countries and support jobs for Israelis.
Arab women too, just like growers, need to earn a respectable living. Agriculture can and must contribute to this, because growers’ and governments’ addiction to cheap labor also harms agriculture, which lags behind in modernization and efficiency. It also harms the economy in general. The OECD long ago noted the low rate of workforce participation among Arab women in Israel as hindering the growth of the economy. The government itself decided to gradually decrease the number of migrant laborers and increase the number of Arab women in employment to 41% by 2020 – but in practice its policies encourage unemployment.
You don’t need to be an economist to understand that the addition of some 30,000 women working in agriculture for the minimum wage will increase GDP, decrease the number of those dependent on social security handouts, reduce socioeconomic disparities, and boost the Israeli economy as a whole. But for the government, it’s business as usual: nice words and no action.
The authors lead the Women in Work project of the worker’s organization WAC-MAAN
Translated by Yonatan Preminger