In an effort to someday replace foreign construction workers with Israelis, the government, together with the contractors’ association, launched a new program on Sunday that offers incentives for newly discharged soldiers to take work in the field.
Over the past decade, the construction sector in Israel has become dominated by foreign workers, particularly by Chinese nationals, who replaced Palestinian laborers after the start of the second intifada. The organizers of the new project say that they hope that by creating a cadre of Israeli workers, they can renew the concept of “avoda Ivrit” (Jewish labor).
Sunday saw a class of 31 young men, 29 of them recently discharged soldiers, begin a two-year program at the end of which they will be certified for a range of construction jobs.
The program, which includes three months of classes followed by an internship and later job placement at major construction firms, is heavily subsidized by the government. The reasoning is that to draw in quality personnel and allow them to compete with relatively cheap foreign labor, the government has to pay both the workers and the employers.
“The project is a joint initiative of the Industry, Trade and Labor Ministry, the Defense Ministry’s Discharged Soldiers Department and the Israeli Contractors and Builders Association,” said Moti Sagi from the Industry, Trade and Labor Ministry’s certification and training department.
“Past efforts to get the project going failed due to bureaucratic entanglement, but this time we learned the lessons and are rolling along nicely. We plan to open three more courses by the end of the year and many more in 2011 and beyond.”
Sagi said that the program’s applicants were driven by two things: the desire for a stable job that can honorably support them and their families, and the ideological drive to see Israelis replace foreign workers.
“Our overall aim is to one day stop importing foreign workers altogether. The way to do that is by training Israelis to do the jobs, that, like it or not, many don’t wish to do. And that requires government assistance,” he said.
“Participation in the program guarantees the participants a NIS 6,000 starting salary, which quickly grows to NIS 9,000. With additional training and experience their salaries will rise, and for those who stick with the program, we offer loyalty bonuses,” he explained.
Udi Anafi, the man who oversees the project on behalf of the contractors association, said that the biggest challenge is convincing the construction firms to take on the Israelis.
“It’s no simple task. The Israelis will always cost more than the foreign workers, but if we want to meet the government’s goals of reducing the number of foreign workers, we have to create an alternative.”
Anafi said that the young men chosen for the program had all proven their mettle in their military service or in previous work experiences, and he was confident they’d make good employees.
“They are a good group of guys and they know what they are getting into. They know that the working conditions will be hard, but they also know that at the end of the day they will have a solid career to support themselves and their families,” said Anafi.
“We try to make sure that each company hires five or six men together, so that they can integrate well into the work crews. We believe that as more people graduate, they will make up bigger and bigger portions of the crews and shift the environment into one less dominated by the foreigners.”
Anafi said he was realistic about the challenges
posed by the project.
“I know that we don’t live in an ideal word and conflicts between the new guys and the existing workers will come up, but I believe that with time, things will settle down nicely. The foreign or Arab laborers might fear for their livelihoods, but there is enough demand for everyone to find jobs.
“We have signed agreements with some of the leading construction firms to guarantee job placement for our graduates and we won’t open a new course until we land jobs for everybody. I urge the companies to look at the value of hiring Israelis and call on them to support the project.”
Later this year, a new course is scheduled to be opened in Beersheba, that will take on discharged Beduin soldiers. He also said that a woman had applied for the program and that he was looking for her to join a course that starts in July.
“Female construction workers are a rarity, but she is aware of the difficulties, so I wholeheartedly back her,” said Anafi.
National Union Party chairman Yaakov Katz, who heads the Knesset’s
Foreign Workers Committee, was credited by both men as being vital to
the initiative’s launch and was invited to give the program’s opening
lecture on Sunday.
Katz spoke of the importance of replacing foreign workers with Israelis,
the value of hard work and the joy he received from seeing Jewish
construction workers, which for him signified a return to the Israeli
ideals of old.
Katz also said that the dependence on foreign workers was one of the
reasons for high housing costs and said that creating a local workforce
would eventually bring housing costs down.