Sleepless in the battle

Construction workers, migrant caregivers and farm workers are paying an unrecognized price for the war.

By ROY WAGNER
September 19, 2006 21:19
4 minute read.

The winds of war are fading, and soon the public debate on committees, inquests and personal responsibilities will follow suit. The holidays are fast approaching and people are again concerned with life, rather than with hate. A lot has been said and written concerning the government's and the army's ineptitude in waging war. But now it is time to observe our even graver and far more important failure in managing life. Following discussions between workers unions and the government, agreements have been signed to compensate those who couldn't work during the war. A welcome agreement indeed - even if a little overdue. And yet, as usual, some workers are allowed to fall through the holes of the social safety net. CONSIDER the following example: Only a minority of construction workers in Israel are employed directly by contractors. Most of them are employed by subcontractors. It is extremely common for subcontractors to provide workers with minimum-wage payslips and give them the rest of their net salary in unreported cash. The subcontractors' motivation for this is obvious: tax evasion. They pay less employer taxes and pocket the money which is supposed to be deducted from the workers as income tax. But the responsibility in fact lies with the commissioning contractors, who pay subcontractors sums they know cannot cover legal payments to workers. The ones who pay the price of this monkey business, however, are the workers. Because of those false payslips workers are considered to be minimum-wage earners in terms of pension and National Insurance coverage. And when workers become dependent on their pension or National Insurance, the results are very harsh. WHAT DOES that have to do with war? Simple. Most construction workers in the North will be compensated for wages lost during the war as if they had earned the minimum wage rather than their actual salary. So for the coming holidays these workers will have to celebrate with as little as half of what they usually make. But construction workers are not the only ones who fall through the gaps in the system. There is the case of a Filipina worker, who for the last four-and-a-half years has been employed in Haifa as the caregiver of an elderly man suffering from Alzheimer's. When the war started, the elderly man's family evacuated him and the caregiver to a senior citizens' home. But the home could not arrange for the worker to sleep there, other than in an armchair near her employer's bed. And the family refused to allow her to leave and go home at night to sleep in her apartment. AFTER SEVERAL sleepless nights, the caregiver returned home with the elderly man. But once they were back home, taking him to the bomb shelter took longer than the sirens allowed. Anxious for her own safety and that of her elderly employer, the caregiver asked the family either to find a safe solution for them both or make arrangements for a substitute worker. The family refused to cooperate either way. The worker, who was by then in a poor mental state, called Kav LaOved and was advised that she didn't have to risk her life for her employer. But in order not to leave the elderly man unattended, she was instructed to call the municipal welfare services. Following the intervention of Kav LaOved and, subsequently, the Philippine embassy, a representative of the family finally arrived and ordered the worker to leave. But that's not the bitter end of the story. The bitter end is that the elderly man's family called the Immigration Police. The police promptly arrived and arrested the worker, who, having been fired, had now become an illegal alien. That's the reward for a worker so dedicated to her employer that she preferred to risk her own life rather than abandon him. The point here, of course, is not the nasty attitude of the elderly man's family. Bad people are everywhere. The point is that the state was there to support a family that put its own father and a migrant worker in mortal danger rather than protect the victims. The stories don't end there. Quite a few of the Thai agricultural workers in the North, for example, don't know that they're entitled to be compensated for the months they were forced out of work by the war. It is likely that their employers will pocket these compensations. In fact, quite a few Thai agriculture workers were forced to work during the war, against the army's orders. Their employers, too, are likely to pocket the compensation which the government will pay for the alleged loss of work. LOW-PAID Israeli construction workers, migrant caregivers, migrant farm workers - all suffered from the war as much as anyone else. But the state's mechanisms are not there to guarantee that they will be compensated and treated fairly - like everyone else. What allows such a situation? The answer is simple. As long as public attention stays focused on the government's war management rather than on life management, innocent disadvantaged people will keep being the ones who pay the price of war. The writer is a board member of worker rights NGO Kav LaOved (Worker's Hot Line) and lectures at the Academic College of Tel Aviv-Jaffa.


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