Conversation with Farm Worker Kamila Zeidan
by Samya Nasser
HREE MONTHS AGO Kamila Zeidan (40) joined the labor force in Israel's Arab sector, where only 18.6% of the women work outside the home. Kamila, from Kufr Manda in Galilee, has quickly advanced. She now heads an agricultural work team in the Haifa region. Independent in spirit, she is raising her two children on her own: Sabah (9) and Sumaya (8).
It is not Kamila's first job. Before marriage she worked nine years in farm labor, as well as in the textile firm, Macpell, which ran a workshop in her village. This shut down in the 90's, as did many textile factories, when production moved to labor-cheap Jordan and Egypt. Along with hundreds of other young Arab women, Kamila found herself jobless.
"I went to work at 16," she told me. "My mother fell ill while I was in eighth grade and I had to leave school in order to help the family. I wasn't the oldest, but they wanted my eldest sister to finish her education, because she was already in 12th grade. At first I helped my mother with the housework, but at 16 I got a job on a farm through a contractor from the village."
Kamila continued working until her marriage. Then, like most village women, she focused on doing housework, raising children and taking care of her husband. Five years ago he died, and she was forced to depend on National Insurance payments, which did not suffice. In October 2007 a relative suggested that she join a team of farm workers who are employed on a direct and organized basis in the north, within the framework of a project run by the Workers Advice Center (WAC).
The new job began during Ramadan, and Kamila was fasting. She fainted twice, but picked right up each time and returned to work. After two weeks she attended WAC's Women's Forum, which has a branch at Kufr Manda. It organizes programs for women's empowerment. At every meeting people talked about the importance of work in the process of a woman's achieving independence and developing her personality. WAC suggested that she take a position as a team leader among women posted at Moshav Tzrufah near Haifa.
Zeidan: At first I hesitated, because the drive to work takes an hour each way, plus another hour gathering the members in the morning and dispersing them at the end of the day. The trouble is, I'm a single parent with two kids. Nevertheless, I managed.
Of course the kids complained at first. I leave the house at five a.m., so it's up to them to get to school on their own. I explained that if we want a better life, we all have to shoulder part of the burden. Soon I could afford to register them for activities in Kufr Manda's Community Center, and then they could see what I meant.
Our standard of living changed totally. The additional income, on top of my widow's allotment, greatly improved my financial situation, but the real change has occurred in my personal situation. In the past, a coffee klatch with the neighbors was my chief entertainment and the only way of "killing" time. Today life has a different meaning.
My day begins at four a.m. At five I pick up the workers. I come home at three or four and start the housework. At nine I put out the light, go to sleep and get ready for a new day. Despite the difficulties and the weariness, I feel that my days have gone from gray to color. No day is like another. I get to know new people and learn new things, like, for instance, the improvement in my Hebrew.
Much of the change stems from the WAC forum. I take part in the empowerment program and hear lectures that broaden my mind. I feel that the farmwork strengthens me financially, but my meetings with the women develop my personality.
How do the people around you regard the fact that you leave the village to work?
Zeidan: Reactions vary. I discovered, for instance, that the poorer women, who are trying to improve their financial situation, encourage me enthusiastically. Women who are better off blame me for neglecting my children. I think they're influenced by the general atmosphere in Arab society, which wants to see the Arab woman at home and not in a job outside the village.
Can you tell us about the difference between working through a contractor and working in an organized framework?
Zeidan: When I worked through a contractor I always felt that there's someone else dividing my salary with me, although he didn't do very much to deserve it. That was humiliating. An organized job enables me to earn twice as much. Instead of 80 shekels a day [about $23 –SN], I make 160. I get a salary slip and I can see what I'm earning and what's being taken out and why. I know I've got social insurance.
The only advantages of the contractor were two: he had a car to transport us and he knew Hebrew, so he could talk with the boss. He used this advantage to exploit us and make money at our expense. Now these things are changing. More and more women know Hebrew and many have learned to drive. We do the driving now. Once we got a flat on the way to work. We managed to change the tire. That was an answer to all the cynics who asked, after hearing that women can manage themselves, "And what will you do when you get a flat tire?"
Today I am a work-team leader, but I get the same salary from the farmer as the others. The same pay and the same benefits. That creates an atmosphere of full equality and cooperation among us.
Dozens of women have seen what we're doing and have begun telling me they want to work too. We've roused their appetite. I refer them to WAC so they'll register and get organized. When this thing multiplies and our number in Kufr Manda reaches 200—200 women going out to work in organized jobs through WAC—that will be a revolution. It will bring about an improvement in the women's living standard, of course, but more than that, it will raise up the entire village, which is today among the poorest in Galilee.