International Women's Day - Demonstrating for Jobs

Sharon Horodi

On International Women's Day, March 8, 2006, people passing the new government office tower in Tel Aviv paused for a strange sight. A hundred women, Arab workers and Jewish activists, stood on the sidewalk with signs proclaiming: "Women want to leave the circle of poverty!" and "Who said Israeli women don't want to work in agriculture?" From the megaphone came phrases in Arabic. Female farm workers and jobless women had arrived from Galilee to protest against a government policy that leaves them poor.

In contrast with the cosmetics companies, which use this day to peddle their wares, the Workers Advice Center (WAC-MAAN) chose to urge the opening of jobs for Arab women in Israel. "Today," said Orit Soudry, organizer of the demonstration, "we offer the Ministry of Commerce, Industry and Labor a genuine opportunity to solve our unemployment problem. We say, 'The key is in your hands. Open the door to employment.'"

For the past year WAC has worked hard to bring Israel's jobless Arab women back into agriculture. Although successful to a point, WAC keeps colliding with an obstacle that can only be removed by government action. The farm bosses prefer to hire either migrant workers from abroad (who arrive helpless and exploitable, having gone into debt to come here) or locals supplied by a contractor. In both these cases, they needn't pay social benefits, and they can easily avoid paying the legal minimum wage.

Sigal Rozen, director of Moked – The Hotline for Migrant Workers, spoke to the demonstrators on March 8, addressing the problems of employing migrants in exploitative conditions: "I want to tell all the female workers gathered here today that we identify with you and support you in your just struggle for jobs under fair conditions in agriculture. When a farmer, a contractor or a restaurant owner gets used to the idea that he can employ a migrant or a Palestinian at low wages, even lower than the legal minimum, and without social benefits, the Israeli worker hasn't a chance of competing.

"All workers suffer from this, whether they're migrants or Israelis, and the sole beneficiaries are the employers. Only solidarity among workers, and only a common struggle for jobs under fair conditions for all, can ensure a dignified existence for you and the migrant workers both."

Government policy allowing the importation and exploitation of migrant workers in agriculture is the chief obstacle to placement of Israelis in these jobs. In recent years the government has substantially increased the number of import permits. The number of migrants in this branch alone stands at 26,000. The notion that no Israeli is willing to work in the fields has fixed itself in the governmental mind – and in public opinion – like a natural law.

The women who demonstrated on March 8 represent multitudes. WAC's offices have registered hundreds like them in the Arab sector who want agricultural jobs. The absence of a government policy to encourage them is a major factor behind Arab unemployment. While its rate "fell from 13.4 percent in 2002 to 11.5 percent in 2003, at the same time, the proportion of those who despaired of finding work rose from 6.1 percent to 9 percent." (Ruth Sinai, Haaretz March 2, 2005) Agriculture is a potentially excellent source of jobs for Arab women, only 17% of whom presently work outside the home (compared with 50% of Jewish women).

One of the speakers at the demonstration was Siham Alawi, a farm worker from Kufr Qara. Alawi is a WAC member, a mother of four. She stressed the importance of women's going out to work: "Today's women refuse to accept the attempt to shut them in the house and keep them from developing. Many have broken the chains of tradition and the patriarchal regime. They've gone out to work, and they've proved their capabilities on all levels."

From the words of Hanna Rashed of Nazareth, one can see the change that has taken place: "I'm a mother of three. Till five months ago I was a housewife, but then I began to work for Sindyanna of Galilee (a fair-trade organization marketing olive products). I work eight hours a day and get a salary including an official pay slip with full social benefits. Going out to work has given me self-confidence and helped me develop. It's also been a positive influence on the children, who see me helping to support the family."

Siham's Alawi's speech brought out another problem in government policy toward agricultural labor: "Female farm workers suffer exploitation. Many of my friends work for subcontractors. They don't get a pay slip, they don't get benefits, and their wages don't top 80 shekels per day [about $17 – S.H.]. Many agree to work under such conditions because the sole alternative is poverty."

WAC estimates that between 7000 and 10,000 locals, male and female, work through subcontractors – who function as personnel ("manpower") companies. The workers aren't registered with the employer. This custom encourages a black-market economy. Whereas the subcontractor receives a sum per worker approaching the minimum wage (as of March 31 it was 144 shekels per day), the worker gets between 80 and 100 shekels.

WAC's approach is to visit Israeli farms, meet with the owners and offer them help in finding workers. In tandem, WAC's offices collect the names of men and women seeking jobs in agriculture. When an employer agrees, he receives an organized work team. WAC follows up on the adjustment of the new workers, helping them when necessary, and solves any problems that arise between them and the employers. The latter pay nothing for these services. The workers, for their part, have rights and obligations within WAC. Farm workers pay dues of 20 shekels per month.

Another big problem faced by WAC has to do with the seasonal nature of agriculture. When farmers employ Israelis, they relate to them as a reserve labor force: that is, they are first to be fired.

Despite all its efforts, WAC alone cannot bring about the changes these women need. In a position paper dated January 2006, written for a meeting with the deputy director-general of the Employment Ministry, Yaakov Zigdon, WAC proposed the following steps:

1. To subsidize every farmer who employs Israeli workers. The subsidy will have two components:

a. A subsidy for the cost of transporting workers to and from work.

b. A salary subsidy.

2. To bring about a gradual decrease in quotas for the import of migrant workers, with the goal of stopping slave labor in Israel within five years.

Until the government adopts these ideas, WAC will continue its daily struggle to open jobs. For the women who came to the demonstration on March 8, it was clear that they were participating in a historic moment: they had gone out, most for the first time, to protest against a government policy which discriminates against them. The place of this event was carefully chosen. It is clear, as Soudry said, that the key lies with the government, in particular the Ministry of Commerce, Industry and Labor.

Their newly gained confidence as WAC members brought the women this year to demonstrate. By International Women's Day 2007, we hope that they and many more will be working.