Migrant labour in Israel


By Assaf Adiv
You always see them in groups. At the end of the day, silent, holding nylon bags containing their suppers — usually a loaf of cheap bread. After a day's work, they gather around local stores drinking bottles of beer, their only social luxury. Their faces are burnt tan, their hair straw-like. They probably somewhat resemble the Jewish chalutzim, who came to Palestine from Europe at the end of the century to build a state with Jewish labour. But back in 1948, after the chalutzim managed to replace the native Arabs, they lost interest in the hard labour and scorching sun.
Then came the Eastern Jewish immigration (Mizrahim). Throughout the '50s and '60s the state of Israel was built by Jews from Yemen, Morocco, Iraq and Egypt. The emphasis was still "Jewish labour"; Arabs who remained inside Israeli territory were confined to their areas under strict military rule until 1966. For Arabs to work in Jewish cities was possible only through the right connections and a special pass.
All this changed with the 1967 war. Israeli economic energies were now ready to expand outward. The Israeli geographic expansion in '67 ironically returned to Israeli control a large number of Palestinians who had been chased out in 1948. The military victory opened a whole new market for selling goods and exploiting cheap labour.
While the Mizrahim were quickly pushed upward to become a more privileged working class or join the middle classes, over 26 years Palestinians filled their places in con­struction, food services and agriculture.
Within a short time, the standard of living in the territories grew (in comparison with other Arab countries). The long-term result, however, was that Palestinian society became a population of migrant workers. Because Israel did not allow any independent industry to develop in the territories, the proletarianised Palestinians there became completely economically dependent on Israel.
Just as employment in Israel was used after '67 to pacify the population in the occupied territories, it was used once again when the Intifada broke out in December 1987, this time to starve Palestinians into making political concessions.
The first step was to issue magnetic ID cards at the beginning of the Intifada. Anyone who had spent time in jail, which included quite a few of the young male workers, was refused an ID card.
The next step was the partial closures imposed on the territories during times of upheaval. These closures solidified into policy in March 1993. Closure, which began as a tool to "combat terror", became a policy of "separation" which was staunchly supported by the Israeli peace movement.
Eight roadblocks were erected between the territories and Israel, through which all Palestinian males (and occasionally females) required a pass to cross. The separation was not in fact territorial, as Israeli settlers continued to cross freely, but was rather a means of separating the Palestinian people from Israel.
The hope was that with the further erosion of an already collapsing economy in the territories, Palestinian political fortitude would crack, paving the way for an internal sell-out. Meanwhile, Israeli contractors and farmers became frustrated with the trickle of workers from the territories, and began pressing for more reliable sources of labour.
What appeared at first to be a far-fetched alternative soon became hard fact. Today, there are roughly 100,000 foreign workers in Israel. They constitute more than 66,000 of the 160,000 total workers in construc-ion. Statistics from May indicate that about 51,000 foreign workers are registered, and another 15,000 are working illegally in this field. In July, head of the Contractors' Association Amos Bar'am was in Thailand to arrange to bring over 15,000 more.
Cartography magazine recently disclosed that 25% of Israeli companies employ or seriously consider employing foreign workers.
For company owners, the economic incentive is clear. In a large company such as A. Dori, an Arab construction worker who is a citizen of Israel earns an average monthly salary of 3600 shekels (US$1200), including social benefits paid by the company. Foreign workers at A. Dori receive US$600 a month for salary and expenses — half of what Arab workers make.

Kav La'oved, a Tel Aviv-based organisation for workers' rights, is inundated with cases of mistreatment of foreign workers. In its January '95 newsletter, the organisation describes how these workers' rights are violated:
"Upon arrival their passports are confiscated by their employers, their salaries are unlawfully withheld and high sums deducted, presumably as a deposit to be returned when the worker leaves the country. These deposits are often not returned to the worker, under the claim that he 'violated the agreement'. They work extra hours and on Saturdays with no extra pay; they live in crowded, inhuman conditions, usually in flats rented by their bosses. If workers dare to complain or are considered troublemakers, their bosses hire armed guards to evict them."
Vasil Yurdanov was brought to Israel from Bulgaria in 1994 by the company Ortal and sent to work for a company called Mei Arad. Not only did he receive his salary two months late ($255 monthly for 10 hours a day), but when he was fired, the company refused to return his deposit of $95. He then received an order for deportation within three days.
There is another twist to this sad story of a whole community living away from home with no rights and in the margins of a foreign society. Not only have they been used to oust the Palestinian working class in the territories, but they now pose a threat to the Arab working class in Israel.
Ibrahim and Muhammed Miari are former employees of A. Dori. Along with 16 other workers, between January and June they were fired and replaced with Romanians. Muhammed, who had worked there for 11 years, was accused by the company of being "undisciplined" — a bizarre claim, since only two years previous he had been awarded a company prize for a project in Eilat. Maslah Tarabeih of Sakhnin reports that he was told by his local manager: "We know that you are the best workers, but the company wants to replace all of you with Romanians".
During the writing of this article, another 50 workers from Sakhnin have been fired from A. Dori Cesaria, supposedly because of cutbacks. The fact that they were replaced by 60 foreign workers implies that lack of company money is not the reason. Three years ago, A. Dori employed at least 1500 Arab workers, 100 from Sakhnin alone. Today only six from Sakhnin are left. A. Dori's new building projects in the city of Modi'in employ 100 workers, all of whom are Romanians.
Zvi Timor, spokesman for the Ministry of Labour, told the Workers Advice Centre that ministry regulations forbid the replacing of locals with foreigners. He said that if the ministry hears of such an inci-ent, the company can be prohibited from employing foreign workers altogether. When asked how many companies have been apprehended for violating these regulations, Timor's aide reported 48 cases.
Meanwhile, the largest company in Israel, Solel Bonch, employs 4000 foreign workers. The company was reported in June to have replaced 20 Arabs with Romanians in its Tromim factory near Haifa. Will the Ministry of Labour actually carry out its threat and send home the other 4000 Romanians as a punishment? It seems more likely that Solel Bonch and A. Dori will influence minister of labour Ora Namir to allow such "minor violations" to slide.
[From Challenge, bimonthly magazine published in Jerusalem. Subscriptions: US$30 or equivalent per year; post to PO Box 41199, Jaffa 61411, Israel.]

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