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Empowering the Weaker Workers in Israel, 2009
A discussion on ways to defend and organize groups of workers who are subject to exploitation and discrimination in the Israeli labor market, including Arabs, migrants, women and youth.
The following is a synopsis of the talks that were given at a panel preceding the General Assembly of the Workers Advice Center (WAC-MA'AN) on July 18, 2009 in the Mansher Auditorium in Tel Aviv.
Professor Eran Yashiv: "More organization means more bargaining power."
Professor Yashiv teaches in the Economics Department of Tel Aviv University. Today he is researching the participation of Israel's Arab population in the labor market.
The weaker workers may be characterized by eight categories:
- Palestinians from the Occupied Territories
- Arab Israelis
- Workers hired by contractors
- Older workers
- The unemployed
- The unskilled
What are the causes of their weakness? What must be done to empower them?
One cause is the high rate of turnover, meaning that these workers can easily be exchanged for others. One weak group can replace another. One group can be used to hurt another. Furthermore, such workers can also be replaced by machines.
Another reason, to use the parlance of economists, is asymmetric information. The wealthy and their companies have data that the workers lack. The former have a better notion of issues related to economic activity, and they exploit this advantage to outmaneuver the workers—for instance, to pay a lower wage than the workers deserve. The company knows better than the worker how much he or she is contributing to its activity.
A third cause is lack of organization. Unorganized workers have low bargaining power, if any. This is where WAC comes in: it enables workers to organize.
Another problem is that these groups lack political power. In contrast, if we take a look at the country's farmers, we see a strong lobby in the Knesset and the government.
And then there's discrimination, especially against the Arab workers WAC is defending. Although discrimination at times takes official form, it is hard to prove, because it is camouflaged under various guises.
There is an index known as the Rate of Employment, which measures how many people participate in the labor market (i.e., want to work). Every person above age 15 is considered employable. Among secular Jewish males, the rate stands at over 80%. Among Arab males it is under 70%, and among ultra-orthodox Jewish males it is under 30%. Thus among two groups who make up 30% of Israel's population, the rate of employment is relatively low.
Among Jewish secular women, the rate is above 70%, among ultraorthodox women 55%, and among Arab women 20%.
I want to set before you some updated data concerning migrant workers. In 2008 there were a total of 3 million workers in Israel, 2.2 million in the business sector and the rest in the public sector. In the business sector there where more than 200,000 migrant workers and another 60,000 from the Occupied Territories. On an international comparison, these figures are extremely high: 12%. The migrant groups are weak, for they lack both political clout and the power to organize. The Israeli Arabs have problems in the labor market: we look at indices like unemployment, full or partial, and wages—in all these fields they have problems. The jobless rate among Arab men has always been higher than among their Jewish counterparts. Among Arab women it has risen in recent years. In contrast with Jews, Arab workers, male and female, tend to focus on certain skills (e.g., construction among men and education among women), and the resulting lack of diversity creates a problem.
Another difficulty for Arab males is that their work fetches a relatively low wage. Among Jewish males, the hourly wage stands at NIS 50 (NIS 4 = ca. $1). Among Arabs it is NIS 28. Among Jewish women the hourly wage is NIS 38, among Arab women NIS 31. That is the national average for all industrial branches. Arabs earn less per hour because they are concentrated in branches where wages are low.
Another important datum is that the participation of Arab males stops at a younger age. The apparent reason is their concentration in fields that require a high degree of physical fitness, such as construction, agriculture and manufacturing. Accordingly, men leave work at ages 40-44, while in the world at large, and among Israeli Jews, most retire in their 50's. Thus the concentration in these branches causes not just a lower wage but also early retirement, a result of the physical demands. The result is that in every cross-section of the labor market, the Arabs come out lower by international and local comparisons. The basic reason behind it all is discrimination.
We should recognize the fact that Israel has many weak groups. In addition, weak groups weaken each other, as, for instance, the migrants weaken the Arabs by competing with them in the labor market. What then can be done to empower weakened groups? There are several ways to go. One is organization. More organization means more bargaining power. Also, legal protection, legislation. In the US and Europe, for instance, there are laws against discrimination and deprivation of rights. There are ways to enforce those laws with financial penalties. Laws do not just sit in the books. Violators get fined. Also, these weaker groups need information about their rights. This is basically what WAC does, so I think your work is very important.
Dr. Itzik Saporta: "If we do not organize and instead sit on our hands, the train will continue to chug along."
Dr. Itzik Saporta, a member of the Mizrahi Democratic Rainbow, is a lecturer in Administration at Tel Aviv University. He is a member of the board of the Adva Center and, together with Yossi Dahan, he directs the website ha-Oketz.
It is a duty to act. Passivity is the problem. What is happening in Israel, culturally and economically, is that a passive population has been created, one that accepts the situation as given, as if there's nothing to be done. People believe there are forces bigger than us. I claim that if we don't act, this will not change. We accepted the simplistic, primitive economic notion that what we need is a small government, lower taxes, a flexible labor force, and so on. If the problems aren't solved as a result, why, that's because we didn't lower taxes enough, didn't make the market flexible enough, and so on. I claim that this notion does not and will never work.
The bottom line is that we have to decide which economic system is good for us. This doesn't mean we don't need to learn from experts, but they too err sometimes. People with money sometimes go to an additional doctor for a second medical opinion, but in economics they tell us there's just one opinion. As for me, I don't like the concept "weakened groups," because it doesn't convey the simple point that they didn't just become weak out of the blue. Something weakened them! Look, there is human dignity, commitment, every person is a totality, and in a democratic country he or she has equal rights. Group affiliation should have no effect on how far a person can go in accomplishments. It cannot be that entire populations are in the gutter and people just say, "Well, that's the way the cookie crumbles."
We've been trained to reach short-term goals, and so we lose. Sometimes a defeat is just a phase in the struggle. One of our problems is the incapacity to persevere. We have to struggle constantly, not just for ourselves but for all those around us. It always comes up that the migrants are the problem, but that's not the real problem. Our real problem is that people lack food and money for medicine. We need to grasp the fact that only the workers can safeguard their rights, not the government. At this very moment, the employers are fighting against the law that enables workers to organize at their job sites. They're scared to death that their profits will decline. Exactly this issue, the organization of workers, is the starting point. In the end it will bring together a mass of people who will influence the media as well as the politicians. If we do not organize, if instead we sit on our hands, the train will continue to chug along. In a country that's among the thirty richest in the world, great numbers of people will never lives lives that go beyond mere survival.
Sigal Rozen: "They're always saying that if we deport the migrants there'll be work for the unemployed. But the same door that they deport them from is the one used to bring in new migrants who are easier to exploit."
Sigal Rozen is Coordinator for Public Activity in the Center for Aid to Migrant Workers.
People tell you that migrant workers take your jobs, and it's true. The reason is that the government allows businesses to employ them in conditions of slavery, to the point where Arabs, especially in construction and agriculture, are squeezed out because they can't compete.
Migrants were first brought in by the government in 1993, following the intifada and the closures, in order to replace workers from the Occupied Territories. The moshav movement and the Contractors' Association exerted pressure to import workers under terms of enchainment to the employer. What does enchainment mean? The migrants did not get work permits, rather the employers were the ones who got the permits to employ them, so the migrants were legal only as long as they stayed with the employer. As soon as they'd switch to another employer, they'd lose their legal status. Then they'd be arrested and deported, and others would be imported in their stead.
Many businessmen exploited this situation, sometimes under constraint. For example, building contractors who did not need the workers all the time would transport them from site to site, or to other employers. Then the government supervisors would discover that the migrants weren't working for the original employer, so they'd arrest and deport them. Nothing would happen to the contractor himself, and he'd bring in other migrants to replace the deported ones.
An additional factor is the huge sums that the migrants pay in their countries of origin. These have swelled in the course of the years. [In the early 90's – Ed.] the price for working in Israel began at $3000 to $3500. Today, in China especially, it amounts to $20,000. What leads a worker to borrow and pay so much to work here? The agents fool them into thinking they'll be able to work five years straight. Assuming they'll earn the minimum wage, they believe they'll be able to return the loans in a year and a half, after which they'll be sending back sums that will make an enormous difference to their families.
The Center for Aid to Migrant Workers is especially active in the prisons, where the migrants are held before deportation. We try to help them and gain the release of those who were arrested illegally. We also work on the public level to reduce enchainment. We submitted a petition to the High Court in 2002, and after four years of deliberations, the Court decided that the practice amounts to modern slavery. It noted too that migrants earn about half the minimum wage. The Court canceled enchainment and allowed the government half a year to find another system for importing workers. As of today there is still no alternate arrangement. In the construction industry they did alter the system somewhat: there the migrant is still enchained, but not to the employer, rather to a manpower agency. In agriculture there has been no change at all. That is the branch from which most Arabs were ousted in favor of migrants from Thailand.
There's another group too that we work with: the refugees from Sudan and Eritrea. Israel released them from its jails in exchange for detention in moshavim and kibbutzim, on condition that they work there for a particular boss who signs a statement that they won't leave the premises. This arrangement gave the employer much power, and we saw cases where almost all the refugees were employed at NIS 13 per hour, instead of the legal minimum of NIS 20. The lucky ones made NIS 14.5. The Sudanese told us that two days after their arrival, a group of Arabs was dismissed because the boss preferred the Sudanese. That's what happens with the Thais when the quotas are raised and more are imported: the Arabs are fired, because they aren't ready to work for NIS 13—and don't need to either. I join my colleagues in saying that if we all struggle so that migrants too will get the minimum wage, then the situation of all will be improved, because it won't pay for the employer to prefer them.
Every time a new minister is appointed, he compares the number of unemployed with the number of migrant workers and decides that "if we deport the migrants there will be jobs for the unemployed." At once the government decides on a deportation campaign and a cut in the import permits, and then all those who arrived near the time of the decision—workers who paid enormous fees—lose their permits. Next, the farmers' and builders' lobbies begin to press, and little by little, in the course of the year, the quota for new importations is raised.
New workers are constantly arriving. The turnover serves the interest of the employers to keep wages low. The farm workers want to keep their legal status, and they know that if they leave the original boss they'll be illegal. In order to keep their status they are ready to agree to NIS 13 per hour. They have other advantages too over Arab workers. They are willing to work extremely long hours, and they live right at the job site. In almost all the farms I know, the work day lasts 11 or 12 hours, from 6:00 till 6:00. And of course they're always available.
Asma Agbarieh-Zahalka: "It's not that the government is 'good for the Jews.' There's a government, and there are employers, who are bad for all workers, Jews and Arabs. That's why change requires solidarity. We in WAC pose a big challenge for social change, and we believe that the common interest will eventually unify us."
Asma Agbarieh-Zahalka is a key activist in WAC.
The fading of the Histadrut, starting in the 90's, resulted in the creation of a very large group of unorganized, weakened workers. When I say weakened, I mean long hours, humiliation, problematic pay slips, low salaries, lack of a pension plan, lack of stability, lack of job security, and tricks as well as threats from the side of employers, who circumvent their rights. In essence, I mean workers who live in fear. Exploitation and fear have become the common denominator today joining most workers in Israel, without regard to ethnic group, race, religion or gender. In this respect, wonderful to say, all are equal.
We find these workers today in the private sector, in factories for instance, or in the public sector, working for personnel companies or contractors. Most of them come from the weak layers of the society: Arab, Russian, Ethiopian or Mizrahi. In these cases the exploitation of their labor adds to the already existing discrimination against them in other areas. What's more, they usually have very little notion of their rights. Although on the books Israel's labor laws are among the world's best, they aren't enforced, because the chief labor union, the Histadrut, doesn't insist. The only way to secure respect for workers' rights, therefore, is to organize them into a new labor union.
As long as labor lacks organization, the employer retains powerful means for imposing his own interests. The power to fire, the power to frighten, the power to exploit, the power to divide the workers, all make it hard to organize. Although we have a new law that permits union organization, the employer will do all he can to block it, for he knows it will limit his power.
Building a union is hard, and we face huge challenges. At WAC we made it even harder for ourselves when we decided to organize Jews and Arabs together. But this is necessary, because the labor force at the factories and in most other industrial branches includes both Jews and Arabs.
Let me illustrate by mentioning some of the struggles we've engaged in recently. One is in the name of the workers in the Israel Antiquities Authority (IAA), who work via a personnel firm named Brik. The struggle began when we were approached by Palestinian laborers from East Jerusalem, and it spread to include the organization of Mizrahi and Ethiopian Jewish workers from Ashkelon and Kiryat Gat. Workers from a broad and complex spectrum found themselves facing a common plight, engaged in a struggle for direct and stable employment by the IAA. It was moving, I have to say, to hear them all calling out the same slogans at a demonstration opposite the IAA dig in Jaffa in June 2009. It was moving, too, to have refreshments afterwards with both groups together at the WAC office in Tel Aviv.
Another example is provided by quarry workers in the West Bank. There a struggle is underway to organize a Workers Council that will negotiation with the company to improve job conditions and sanitation. Our legal fight so far has forced the company to issue pay slips to these workers.
I should also mention our struggle to gain jobs for Arab women, and our struggle against the revolving door, that is, against the practice of deporting migrant workers while bringing in ever more. This "modern slavery," which has gone on for two decades, has become a lucrative industry here. Our struggle against it, and for Arab women, has brought WAC-Maan into the public limelight as a factor working for a healthy, socially-oriented economy.
There is no question but that the common struggle of Jews and Arabs may be undermined every time an ambulance siren goes off, or in time of war. But when there is a plan of struggle for the rights of all, and when there is education for solidarity, the vision can be fulfilled. We share a common fate, and that's the crucial thing.
The challenge before us is to overcome the workers' fear of their bosses, as well as the hatred and incitement that arise between their ethnic groups because of the political situation. This we do in our speeches and publications, educating for tolerance. It's not that the government is "good for the Jews." There's a government, and there are employers, who are bad for all workers, Jews and Arabs, and good only for their own pockets. The wealthy benefit while those below them suffer from poverty and war. That's why change requires solidarity. We in WAC pose a big challenge for social change, and we believe that the common interest will eventually unify workers from both sides.