“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.”

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About Roni Ben-Efrat