Palestinian labor limited due to corona, Israeli builders struggling

"A similar measure in March caused a 30% decline in the industry."

View of the construction site of 'Mechir Lamishtaken' at Armon Hanatziv neighborhood in Jerusalem on January 28, 2019. (photo credit: HADAS PARUSH/FLASH90)
View of the construction site of 'Mechir Lamishtaken' at Armon Hanatziv neighborhood in Jerusalem on January 28, 2019.
(photo credit: HADAS PARUSH/FLASH90)
With another full lockdown beginning at midnight Thursday, travel to and from the Palestinian territories will force Israel’s building industry to face another period of uncertainty.
“We have been informed that the country has decided to close up the Palestinian territories to daily travel for workers,” Israel Builders Association Deputy Director-General Shay Pauzner said on Thursday. “This means that if a worker wants to work, he will have to decide by Sunday to commit to remaining in Israel for the remainder of the closure for at least two weeks, and not return to his home every night.”
A similar measure was imposed during the first lockdown in March, which caused a 30% decline in the construction industry’s workforce, Pauzner noted. Since then, there has been an attempt to ease employment shortages by granting permits to allow more Palestinians to stay in Israel overnight.
A survey published last week by the Bank of Israel found that by August, the majority of Palestinian workers had stayed overnight in Israel for at least part of the month. It found that employers had provided a place to sleep for about half of those workers, and that a large majority said their living conditions were good.
The report anticipated that the creation of additional living arrangements for workers would help prevent some of the loss to the workforce during lockdowns.
About 100,000 Palestinians work in Israel, a critical element for the Palestinian economy, but that number fell by 64% in April, although it has since returned to pre-pandemic levels.
According to the Palestinian Central Bureau of Statistics, about 18% of Palestinian employees living in Judea and Samaria were employed by Israel in 2019. Palestinian workers in Israel earn an average of NIS 254 per day, more than double the average Palestinian daily wage.
Most Palestinian workers, some 65,000, are employed in Israel’s construction industry, comprising about 25% of the sector’s workforce. However, coronavirus-related challenges like sickness, lockdowns, quarantines and logistical issues have meant that between a quarter and a third of those workers have been unavailable at any given time, said Pauzner.
“The building sector has suffered a lot from the constant work stoppages,” he said. “The Palestinians are the backbone of the entire industry.”
Israel already suffers from a housing shortage, and the pandemic is expected to exacerbate it even further. New housing starts declined by nearly 10% in the first nine months of 2020, attributed to a lack of labor and a decline in land made available for building by the Israel Lands Authority. This will likely lead to a rise in housing prices in what is already considered the second-most expensive housing market in the world.
The Israel Builders Association has asked the government to allow Palestinian workers to get vaccinated so they can work with greater consistency.
“We have been speaking with the government and the health funds about the feasibility of creating a program to vaccinate these workers,” Pauzner said. However, he noted, “we know that decisions about the Palestinians are ultimately up to the government and its policies, and the shutdown has made it even harder to get anything done. We want to get the workers vaccinated, so we can all get back to work.”
Until the last few days, the Palestinian Authority had chosen not to ask Israel to provide vaccines, preferring instead to pursue other means to acquire them, but it has now asked Israel for assistance in procuring them, in addition to supplies it has received via the World Health Organization.
Pauzner noted that the incidence of COVID-19 infections has been quite low among foreign workers in the construction industry.
“The contractors have been operating very carefully,” he said. “Employers have been following the ‘purple ribbon’ rules for coronavirus restrictions, and the Palestinians, Chinese and European workers have been working in capsules so that if an outbreak occurs, they won’t lose their entire team.”
At this point, builders don’t yet know how many workers will turn up to work next week.
“In March, it was much more difficult,” Pauzner said. “We had only 48 hours’ notice, and we had to receive approvals for each person. I don’t know what people are planning on the Palestinian side. We’ll have to wait and see.”