Report after report decries the haredi community’s low participation rate in the labor force as one of the economy’s major challenges. Yet tucked away in Modi’in Illit, Matrix Global, a hi-tech company comprised mostly of haredi women, is proving the community can provide a solution to one of Israel’s other problems: international outsourcing.
Elisha Yanay, chairman of the Israel Association of Electronics and Software, said the country is in danger of losing 20,000 to 30,000 good, hi-tech jobs to places such as India and China, whose increasingly educated and talented labor forces are considerably cheaper than Israel’s. That’s where the ultra-Orthodox women come in.
“They work at a very low wage,” Yanay explained on a site visit to Matrix Global on Sunday. Cheaper, talented labor in Israel offers big companies with research and development centers a valuable alternative.
“Why go to China when you can go to Modi’in?” he said.
It’s not that haredi labor is inherently cheaper, Matrix Global chief operating officer Libi Affen said; employers should not expect that individually hired haredi women will accept lower salaries. The model Affen developed in Modi’in Illit, however, is able to offer more competitive costs for a number of reasons.
“I don’t want it to be that the haredi community works for cheap,” Affen stressed. “The only way we give the women less money is because everything else costs so much.
“The model we built is that we take women right out of school who can’t get jobs on the outside, and are just sitting at home, and give them the additional training they need to compete with people coming out of Ben-Gurion or Tel Aviv University,” she explained.
The idea was to not only provide women with practical training and experience that members of their cohort miss for lack of work or army experience, but also to provide a cultural environment conducive to their religious needs.
Walking down the halls of Matrix Global, where each office proudly lists the hi-tech company commissioning its project, feels like walking through a haredi Silicon Valley.
Women with long skirts and covered heads pop in and out of offices, where the occasional baby stroller is parked. Dedicated rooms are available for breast feeding and pumping.
The kitchens are strictly kosher, the schedule is built around Jewish holidays and the hours are flexible to allow women to pick up and drop off their children as needed. And, perhaps most important, it’s located close to where many of the women live.
As the debate on women “having it all” rages in the United States, with Facebook’s Sheryl Sandberg urging women to “lean in” to demand more in their careers and Anne Marie Slaughter proclaiming in The Atlantic that raising a family while aspiring to get ahead at work is impossible, Matrix Global has struck an interesting balance by catering to a community of women with starkly defined priorities.
“I envy the women here,” Affen said. “They have already taken into account that they want to raise their family.”
The project, which started in 2004 with a group of 29 women, has grown to a total of 800 at several sites around the country, with 650 in Modi’in Illit. It now constitutes about 10 percent of its parent company, Matrix, which is one of the largest hi-tech companies in Israel.
With the training and work experience they gain at Matrix Global, some of the women move on to higher-paying jobs in other companies.
But many prefer to stick with the company and all the comforts that go with it.
Another group acting as a bridge between the haredi world and industry, Bereshit, a subsidiary of personnel company Manpower Israel, takes the process a step further by placing haredi workers on site at major companies.
Maya Hetzroni, a sales manager for Experis. another Manpower subsidiary specializing in hi-tech that coordinates with Bereshit, says the haredi experience studying religion gives them an outstanding learning capacity, but that they still require special accommodations to work in secular companies. It sends haredi workers together in groups to make them more comfortable in a corporate environment, and ensures the companies make provisions for flexible hours, frequent maternity leave, staying home with sick kids and religious holidays.
“They prefer to have their specific needs met than higher wages,” Hetzroni said of the haredi workers.
“These things are taken into consideration and accepted.”
One more important reason that haredim are cheaper than foreign alternatives: the government. Each year, the Industry, Trade and Labor Ministry (recently renamed the Economy and Trade Ministry) sets aside some NIS 50 million to subsidize marginalized workers, including Arabs, Druse, workers in the periphery and, of course, haredim. The subsidy amounts to some NIS 1,000 per month or more, depending on the workers.
Those subsidies expire after 30 months, and the women who pass through their programs come out on the other side making the same wages as their secular counterparts, according to Maoz Blau, vice president of professional services and outsourcing at Experis. While just a few dozen women graduate from Experis’s program each year, he said, Bereshit has trained and placed some 8,000. In that regard, the programs serve both the purpose of integrating haredim into the workforce and providing an alternative to outsourcing, keeping jobs within Israel.
Yanay believes the government should continue encouraging the process of integrating haredim into the workforce. “We’re far from living up to the full potential,” he said. “I think the potential of the haredi sector is very large.”