“Black Labor” – Granting Voice and Color to the Unseen Worker

It’s unlikely an event like this has ever been held in Israel before. On January 4, women from the Galilee, the Negev and the Triangle (Wadi Ara region) came together at the Inbal Dance Theatre for the Black Labor Conference to discuss their status as female workers at the bottom of the socioeconomic ladder.

dsc_9511It’s unlikely an event like this has ever been held in Israel before. On January 4, women from the Galilee, the Negev and the Triangle (Wadi Ara region) came together at the Inbal Dance Theatre for the Black Labor Conference to discuss their status as female workers at the bottom of the socioeconomic ladder. Representatives of the women, sat before a packed hall and made it clear this was far more than just another academic conference on women’s employment.
This was apparent in the voice of caregiver Ambika Chahatry (37) from Nepal, a former teacher who was among the founders of the Caregivers Union.
“I came from Nepal as a caregiver and I take care of an elderly woman in Tel Aviv,” she said in English. “Three years ago I left my mother and my three children who I probably won’t recognize when I return home. A few months ago a conference was held in Tel Aviv with many participants. The conference was about migrant laborers. Among those present were representatives of the government, the National Insurance Institute, judges, Knesset members, professors and Histadrut leaders. But they forgot to invite us, representatives of migrant laborers who were the subject of the conference. I am happy to see that this conference is completely different.”
Women agriculture laborers from the Triangle, some of whom came straight from their exhausting day’s work in plantations, women of Ethiopian background from Kiryat Gat who work in handcrafts, basket weavers from the Galilee, migrant laborers from east Asia and residents of “unrecognized” villages in the Negev together with trade union and fair trade leaders and activists – these were the faces of manual labor at minimum wage, faces of strong women, empowered women, women able to speak up for themselves.
The conference was organized by the Coalition of Women for Fair Employment as a continuation of the struggle that began with a march marking International Women’s Day 2010. Participating organizations included WAC’s Women’s Forum, Achoti, Hotline for Migrant Workers, Kol Ha-Isha – Multicultural Feminist Women’s Center, Women’s Parliament, Anwar – Arab-Jewish Women’s Leadership, Sindyanna of Galilee Fair Trade Organization, Ahata Center, and Women Cooking Business – Community Kitchen.

Achoti’s Ester Elam and WAC’s Asma Agbarieh-Zahalka moderated. A challenging task when participants speak four different mother tongues. All participants had earphones for simultaneous translation.
Silence prevailed as Agbarieh-Zahalka asked, “What do I mean when I say black labor?” And her answer – “I mean mute labor, that of cleaners, diaper-changers, planters, cookers, sewers, diggers and builders who form the base of the social pyramid, there at the margins, where time has stopped, without fair wages, without rights, without dignity…”

 

dsc_9474_copyThe life of Wafah Tayara, coordinator at WAC’s branch in the Triangle, is exceptional. She began working in agriculture as a result of a severe economic crisis that befell her family. At first she worked via a “rais” – a local middleman – who exploited her and her companions. When she heard of WAC’s women’s employment project, she was among the first to join.
“When I began receiving my rights (as a worker) and my full wages, without having to give a third to the agent, I stopped feeling as if I was working in “black labor”,” she said. Tayara, who had four young children at the time, told the assembled women that “work in exploitative conditions is what makes it black labor, even if it takes place in an air-conditioned office. Going to work was a turning point in my life.”
Today, Tayara directs the WAC’s project for work placement for women in the Triangle, and the women see her as one of their own. When they talk about the hardships they encounter, she knows from first-hand experience exactly what they mean. Tayara told the conference participants about WAC’s empowerment workshops for working women, and explained their importance:
“We talk about how to persuade family members to share the burden of housework, how to hold a constructive dialogue with the family, how to create social bonds within the work groups,” she said. “We learn how to look at our lives from a different perspective. Suddenly we discover that, without noticing, we are harming our daughters and perpetuating the patterns of oppression we ourselves have suffered. When sharing our personal trials among members of the group we laugh and cry. In this way we nurture solidarity which strengthens us as women. At the same time, we learn about ourselves as workers – what we should receive, how to understand our wage slips, how to struggle against the government and the agriculture lobby who want to continue to exploit weak migrant labor, and how to reach out to public opinion.”

 

dsc_9493Going back to Ambika Chahatry of Nepal she told the conference:
“Right now the Knesset is voting on amendments to the law which will worsen conditions for migrant caregivers. The amendments include passport limitations on freedom of movement, making us “modern slaves” – in the words of the Israeli Supreme Court. These laws will mean that a worker will not dare to resign even in cases of real abuse. This is not an exaggeration – such things are happening today, and the new laws will leave the worker completely bound to his master.
“If you ask a caregiver who has just arrived in Israel how much he paid for the right to work, he’ll no doubt say “I paid NIS 3,150 to the agent.” You should know that he says this because in his country of origin they told him it would be better if he doesn’t say what he really paid. In fact, he paid somewhere between $7,000 and $10,000 for a license to work for five years. In addition, in many cases, when the elderly employer passes away, we lose the license and are deported much earlier. This, of course, is an unimaginable sum for us. In practice, a year and a half or two years of our work here is necessary just to earn the money we paid for the license.
“However, with all the hardships I’ve noted, we don’t sit back and wait for assistance from above – we act. We have established the Caregivers Union in the framework of Koach LaOvdim with assistance from the Workers Hotline. We are working to recruit as many members as possible from among the 60,000 legal caregivers in Israel, most of them women. After a year’s work we have managed to unionize hundreds of caregivers. This is not an easy task – many caregivers fear that unionization is a kind of “revolt” or “legal offense” and will lead to deportation. We try to explain that this is the only way we can guard our rights and improve conditions. Despite what they fear, unionization is legal and protected under Israeli law even if Israelis themselves sometimes forget this. So next time you meet your mother’s caregiver, tell her – if she doesn’t know – that they have somewhere to turn to: the Caregivers Union!”
Lakia Yardeni, from the Ahata (“my sister”) Center in Kiryat Gat, creates works of art with women of Ethiopian background, with assistance from Achoti.

 

dsc_9541“We need to acknowledge our own capabilities and our own creativity, to recognize ourselves as equals, to speak up and love the color of our skin,” she said in Amharic. “We must support each other as we did in Ethiopia, to integrate into new frameworks, to learn Hebrew so we can communicate with our surroundings, and to learn from those who can teach us.”
Ghadir Hani, coordinator in the Dept. for Economic Development of the Negev Institute, Roni Ben Canaan from Kol Ha-Isha in Jerusalem, and Ibtisam Mahamid, director of Anwar for promoting the status of women were also among the speakers at the conference.
During the discussion, the women’s thirst for an opportunity to speak was clear, and hands were raised rapidly one after the other. Women organized with WAC and employed in agriculture spoke of going out to work, of long hours spent traveling to farms, and of the difficulties involved in temporary work. They feel as if they are a reserve pool when the employer dismisses them at the end of the season or at the moment he gets his quota of Thai workers. They also spoke of hardships at home and the lack of support.
Innes Zahalka, a laborer from Kufr Qara said she had studied education in Jordan for four years. When she was unable to find work in this field, she decided to join WAC’s placement project and to work in agriculture. Her husband opposed this move; he did not want his wife working in non-professional work, but she eventually overcame his opposition, telling him she was going to work in order to help him.
“For me, the conference was a qualitative leap in the way I and my comrades perceive ourselves,” Zahalka said after the conference. “The conference was important because it showed the problems encountered by female Arab, Jewish, Ethiopian and migrant laborers. We discovered that the problems are similar despite national and religious differences. In addition, the conference gave us the feeling that we are valued. Conferences of this kind, which express our problems and enable us to express ourselves, strengthen us considerably.”
This special occasion ended with three dances by Natalie Dvir, whose appearance was contributed by the Inbal Ethnic Center for Arts. At the end of the performance, Natalie invited the women to join her on stage.

Michal Schwartz, coordinator for WAC’s Women’s Forum, said the conference was a prologue to the women’s march for fair employment, to be held in Tel Aviv on March 8, 2011, which will include many more women’s organizations.

אודות Roni Ben-Efrat