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FNV Officials Study Israel's Labor Market

T

HREE OFFICIALS from FNV, the largest trade union confederation in the Netherlands, recently met with Arab women at their jobs on an Israeli farm. The jobs had been organized by the Workers Advice Center (WAC), to which the women belong.

The FNV officials were Henk van der Kolk, Chairperson of FNV Bondgenoten; Leo Mesman, policy advisor to FNV Mondiaal, which handles international relations; and Leo Hartveld, the confederation's treasurer, who is an expert in labor market policy and job safety. They had come to study the local labor market and meet with groups that are active in workers' rights.

Together with several of us in WAC, the FNV delegation sat beside the women on crates in the shade of an orange grove near a large field of zucchini. The women were Fat'hiyeh Abu Hilal, Fatmeh Kna'ana, Rahma Abu Faneh, Nadia Shabati and Khadra Abu Shandi. They said that their jobs had pulled them out of poverty and restored their self respect. It was decided to continue the conversation in the evening at the WAC quarters in Kufr Qara, their village in Israel. "You won't recognize us!" joked the women.

But they did. Other workers joined them. Henk van der Kolk asked, "What does WAC mean to you?" He was answered by Najah Jazmawi, a widow and mother of four: "WAC simply raised our level. We used to work through a contractor who took half our salary. Now it comes clear and clean to us." Najah added that she'd been injured on the job and had received a month's paid vacation until recovery. "That could never have happened under the contractor," she said.

The women also discussed an issue that has become a major one for the Israeli labor market: the largely successful attempt, on the part of the farm owners, to break organized labor by importing workers from Thailand. These arrive in such a state of debt—having paid huge sums for visas—that they are completely subject to the bosses' whims and can easily be made to work long hours without recompense or relief. Their wage amounts, in effect, to 13 shekels (NIS) per hour (about $3), which is far more than they would earn in Thailand but far less than the Israeli minimum of NIS 20. At the evening meeting in Kufr Qara, the WAC women described their difficulties when the owner constantly compares them to the Thais. "The Thais work 12 hours every day of the week," they said. "If there must be competition among workers, let it be fair." The women expressed their empathy for the Thais, saying that their living conditions are inhuman. The bosses, they said, ask them not to tell the Thais how much they earn, and not to tell the Palestinians who occasionally arrive from the West Bank.

These words, as well as the women's obvious thirst for work, were essential background material for the next day, when we visited Israel's Ministry of Industry, then the Bank of Israel and the Ministry of Agriculture. In addition, Henk van der Kolk joined WAC's representative Assaf Adiv at a meeting of the Knesset Committee for Foreign Workers.

The three spoke with Ester Dominicini, who is in charge of the Employment Bureau under the Ministry of Industry. She acknowledged that although Israel is today in the midst of an economic boom, the rate of participation in the labor market is only 57%. The injection of foreign workers has lowered wages, she said, creating instability. The FNV officials asked about the position of the Histadrut (the General Federation of Labor), when Israel started its massive importation of labor. She replied: "Indeed, we expected the Histadrut to oppose this process, but it kept silent. The organization that we met with time and again on this subject was WAC. Government policy is interested in lowering the number of foreign workers, but in the private sector the employers' lobby is strong."

On October 29 the Knesset Committee for Foreign Workers sat to decide on whether to import another 2500 Thais to agriculture. Assaf Adiv and Henk van der Kolk attended. One very positive development occurred: the Ministry of Industry reached agreement with the government of Thailand, along with the IOM (International Organization for Migration) for a drastic cut in the visa commissions Thais must pay. This step, it is hoped, will staunch the hunger of personnel companies to import more and more workers. On the other hand, the Minister of Agriculture, Shalom Simhon, strongly advocated importation. Assaf Adiv pointed out that this would contradict another decision by the Agriculture Ministry, namely, to encourage local workers, especially Arab women, to enter the branch—allotting NIS 5 million for this goal. The committee decided to allow the importation but, at the same time, to promote the entry into agriculture of 400 new local workers per year, conditioning the permits to employ foreign labor on the hiring of Israelis. Afterwards, Henk van der Kolk met with the head of the committee, Knesset member Ran Cohen.

Later the same day, Professor Zvi Eckstein of the Bank of Israel told the FNV officials that his office would soon publish a new program, setting two goals: first, to increase the employment of local workers by 3% in the next five years, and second, to raise the wages of low earners. "The work of foreigners in construction and agriculture," he said, "helps the middle class to get rich but definitely harms the poorer strata."

Returning from Jerusalem, we stopped at the Agriculture Ministry in Beit Dagan. Here we met with Taniv Rofeh, who directs the ministry's planning department. Rofeh has been working closely with WAC for over two years. She explained the dilemma of her ministry: they must find quick solutions for farmers, but they want to bring Israeli workers back into the sector. She often refers farmers to WAC.

The FNV officials also met with the Secretary of the Palestinian General Federation of Trade Unions (PGFTU) in the West Bank, then with WAC staff in East Jerusalem. They expressed shock on seeing the separation wall and on hearing how it cuts Palestinians off from the chance to support their families.

These visits, as well as others with the Histadrut and with Workers' Hotline (Kav LaOved), enabled the FNV officials to get an up-to-date picture of labor relations in the area. Much had changed, they discovered, since the FNV's last official visit twenty years ago.

WAC attaches great importance to such visits. Ever since the weakening of the Histadrut in 1994, anarchy has developed in the Israeli and Palestinian labor markets. Only by seeing this for themselves can foreign trade unions assess how pervasive that anarchy is.

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