In contrary to the striking farmers’ claims, Israeli women want to work in agriculture
Next week we may go shopping at the supermarket, the town markets or the corner store, and find ourselves standing before empty shelves: farmers’ organizations including the Israel Farmers Federation, the Growers’ Union and the Poultry Farmers’ Association are threatening to strike, cutting off all supplies for three days.
Why? Because the government has reduced the number of migrant laborers (“foreign workers”) it is allowing into Israel to 22,000, and the agriculturalists claim it was supposed to be reduced to just 26,000. They are demanding the other 4,000: without these workers, they say, there will be no agriculture.
Representatives of the organizations say Israeli workers have become so spoiled they are unwilling to work in agriculture at all, no matter what the wages. Some farmers say there are Israelis willing to work, but they demand five-figure wages, and agriculturalists can’t afford to pay such wages.
However, these claims have no basis in reality. The Workers Advice Center (WAC-MAAN) says it has a list of some 1,000 women from the Arab sector who all want to work in agriculture – and are all willing to work for the minimum wage, just NIS 20.7 ($5.7) per hour.
About 250 of these women work in agriculture today. The organization says Kibbutz Beit Oren has been employing dozens of Arab-Israeli women for some two years in its banana plantations; the flower growers of Moshav Olesh has been employing some for about five years; and a persimmon grower in the Hefer Valley region employs another 50. The rest of the women, WAC says, have not found employment because farmers are not interested in hiring them.
End of season? Go home
Sania Ka’adan from Baqa al-Gharbiyeh worked in agriculture in various communities in the Sharon region for five years. “Each time I worked in a different farm,” she says. “Sometimes three months in one place, sometimes just one month. Each time, the farmer would tell me to go home at the end of the season, so I went to WAC and they found me something else. It’s hard work, but we need the money. We have four children.”
How much money did you earn?
Why did you stop working?
“I don’t know. The farmer in the last place I worked said he didn’t need me anymore because the season had ended, and since then they haven’t found me anything. I think they don’t want me because I have to go home in the afternoon. I used to work each day from five in the morning until two in the afternoon. I sorted out help for the children in the morning, but not for the afternoon. In the places I worked, they didn’t want me to work overtime, but perhaps other places want this, I don’t know.”
Do you know who works instead of you in the places you worked?
“I don’t know. In the last place, they didn’t bring new workers, they just kept on the Thai workers who worked there with us.”
Would you want to go back to work there?
“I want to work. My husband works in dispatch for minimum wage. He works hard, and sometimes they pay him, sometimes they don’t. Our situation is hard, and I have no other way of earning a living. It is insulting that they don’t want me at work. Since I stopped working I’ve become very irritable. I am irritable at home too, and I can’t do anything.”
“Not willing to accept exploitation”
Wafah Tayara, from Kufr Qara, manages the WAC center at Baqa al-Gharbiyeh. In the past she too worked in agriculture for two years. “There are thousands of Arab women in Israel who want to work in agriculture but can’t,” she says.
The problem is not their wage demands, but the farmers who want to make a killing out of exploitation, she says. Many farmers want to pay less than the minimum wage, and the “ra’ises” – the Arab agents – also take a cut.
“I worked in moshavim near Kufr Qara, via agents in Kufr Qara who found work for me and exploited me,” Tayara says. “I don’t know how much the ra’is got and how much the farmer got, but I ended up getting NIS 85 ($23) for a day’s work of eight hours. This is half the minimum wage, and I didn’t get a wage slip or anything.”
“Some of the agents live in my village and know me. I spoke to one of them, and told him it wasn’t acceptable what he was doing, and he got angry, saying he loses money on us and we just complain. I tried to talk to other workers, but nobody dared to do anything. In the end I just got fed up and left, and then I found work with WAC.”
WAC representatives say they confront the “ra’ises” directly. WAC, which is funded by contributions, gets those same workers the same work for free while ensuring they receive everything they are entitled to according to the law. “The ra’ises who had employed me now see me as the enemy,” Tayara says. “One even came to my home to demand I stop undermining him. He said he had done me a favor when he found me work, and now I am hurting him.”
Either way, the Arab workers’ main competition is the Thai migrant laborers. “The farmers prefer the Thai workers,” Tayara says. “They take on Arab workers only during the high season, when they don’t have enough Thais. At the end of the season, the Israelis go home and the Thais stay on.”
They claim Israelis don’t last at work, that after a short time they can’t take it and leave.
“That’s not true. They work all summer, in the heat, and at the end of the season they get fired. It’s very hard work. When I was working, my head and back ached all the time, but I still worked. I had no choice.”
Maybe they need people to work 14 hours a day instead of eight?
“That’s true, but there are women who are willing to work a second shift. The economic situation leaves them no other option. They leave the children with the grandparents or at a kindergarten that opens at five in the morning, and go to work. We sent women to work in packing houses till 12 at night, and they did it.”
So what’s the farmers’ problem?
“They employ the Thai workers under slave conditions. The Thai workers are submissive, they don’t complain when they pay them NIS 4,000 ($1,100 per month) for 12-hour days, they’re willing to work like machines, even taking breaks of just five minutes, so the farmers prefer them.”
“I don’t have anything against Thais,” she emphasizes. “But I’m not willing to help them exploit people, and there’s no difference between a Thai employed like a slave and an Israeli exploited by a ra’is. It’s not a question of Thais or Jews or Arabs, it’s a question of injustice. ”
Excuses come and go, the Thais remain
WAC agriculture coordinator Danny Ben Simhon says the organization speaks with farmers every day, and tours the farms two or three times a week – all in vain. “We are in touch with hundreds of farmers,” he says. “They take Arab women for a short period, when they don’t have enough Thais, passing them among the various farms, and when the Thais arrive, the women are sent home.”
“The excuses change from season to season,” he says. “They say, ‘come back next week,’ or ‘come back next season,’ and we remember, and come back, and see that the Thais are working but Israelis are not.”
Perhaps they demand a high wage, or are only willing to work limited hours?
“All of them are willing to work for minimum wage. And regarding hours, most farms want workers for just eight hours. The reason may be that they’re willing to pay just NIS 165 ($45) per day and so they prefer Thais who work 12 to 14 hours a day for this wage. But the problem is, they’ve got used to cheap, submissive labor which can be exploited and moved from place to place.”
“The few who are willing to work with Israeli women prefer to work via the ra’ises. The ra’is makes a killing at the expense of the workers, and still supplies the farmer with cheap workers, because he pays them half the minimum wage without any social benefits, sharing the ‘profits’ with the farmer, and it’s all ‘under the table’ – no taxes or social benefits. The ra’is organizes transport to work and everything else, and everyone – apparently – is happy.”
How do the ra’ises treat women who work through WAC?
“They don’t like us. I’ve heard many curses and threats. They say we are undermining their livelihood and threaten us, saying we shouldn’t enter their villages. They also threaten the women, saying that if they stay in contact with us they won’t get anymore work. They also carry out their threats, and the women are often scared – it works.”
However, WAC emphasizes that the ra’ises are not the women’s main problem. “With all due respect, we have a list of some 1,000 women, which may well be more than all the ra’ises have together,” Tayara says. “The problem is the employment of migrant labor.”
What’s the solution, in your opinion?
“We must not submit to the farmers’ demands and we must not grant more permits [entry permits to migrant labor]. They should employ those who are here until the end of the permit period, and that should be all. They should also increase law enforcement against those employing women in an exploitative, harmful way. When they do this, they’ll find that there are Israelis willing to work in agriculture and that there are farmers able to employ them.”
This article was written by Tani Goldstein and published in Ynet, 19 Nov. 2010