Working solutions

With the percentage of Arab women working still very low and employment conditions not always adequate, activists from that sector are trying to improve awareness of their rights.

Arab woman 521 (photo credit: Courtesy of WAC-Ma’an)
Arab woman 521
(photo credit: Courtesy of WAC-Ma’an)
There are people who accept their lot in life without question, and then there are those who try to improve life’s offerings, not just for themselves but also for others. Wafa Tayara is one of the latter kind. Guided by principle and a determination to right wrongs, she has made a difference in the lives of many.
Tayara, 39, is the manager of the Workers Advice Center (WAC-Ma’an) office in Baka al-Gharbiya. The organization, which has branches in six cities in Israel, seeks to advance organized labor and protect the rights of workers.
Tayara’s story is similar to that of many Arab women in Israel. Married at 19, she dedicated her time to taking care of her family and home. It was not long before she had her first son, and within a few years she had another three boys. Her dream of getting an education fell by the wayside.
Her husband, the only breadwinner, suffered a slipped disc at his construction job. He was unable to continue working, but his contractor would not acknowledge that his injury was work-related and fired him. He was unemployed for a year before landing another job.
“With no income... the only solution was for me to enter the workforce,” says Tayara. “Although my youngest son, only seven months, was still breastfeeding, I preferred to go out to work rather than take money from people.”
However, finding work was not easy. A lack of factories in the Arab sector, lack of transportation and limited child care did not help. Through a contractor from her village, Kafr Kari, she started her first job as an agricultural worker at the age of 31. “I would leave home at 4 a.m. and squeeze into a van that legally could carry only nine passengers. The contractor transported 17 women to work,” Tayara says. “Work began at 5 a.m. After eight-hour shifts of picking peaches, I would go home, too tired to do anything.”
She asked other women how much they earned each day, and was told NIS 85 – well below the then-minimum wage of NIS 20 an hour. Infuriated, Tayara took a closer look at the working conditions she and so many other women found themselves in.
“The contractor often gained the confidence of the women by approaching their oldest brother. He would offer to find the sisters work which he guaranteed to be safe and secure,” she explains. However, they did not know that the agreement between the contractors and the farmers would force them to work below minimum wage, that they would often not be paid overtime and that they would not receive pay slips or insurance.
They were paid every few days, which did not guarantee them financial security.
To make matters worse, the contractor would often complain about the quality of their work, leaving them in fear of losing their jobs.
“Many of the women were unmarried, widowed, or had alcoholic husbands,” Tayara explains. “Their self-esteem was low and their personalities weak.
Unaware of the laws and workers’ rights, they were very easy to take advantage of. Although they were working, they remained in the circle of poverty,” she adds.
Tayara realized the extent of the contractors’ and farmers’ exploitation. She talked to the women in the hope that they would recognize it too, but in their fear, they asked her to be quiet. She did not want to be alone in her demand for better working conditions and higher wages. Being taken advantage of hurt, but she had no choice but to accept the conditions. And for the next two years she worked through a contractor.
Through her husband’s work connections, WAC – a non-profit organization that aims to unite workers regardless of nationality, religion, gender or the color of their skin – heard about Tayara and offered her work through their organization.
Employment through WAC meant no contractors, comfortable transportation, wage slips, insurance and minimum wage – in an eight-hour workday, she earned NIS 144 instead of NIS 85.
Much to the dismay of the contractors, “I started spreading the word around – that women can work within their legal rights, and get decent wages without being exploited. Women who were working through contractors started coming to me to ask me to put them in touch with WAC,” she says with a smile.
But her luck – and hard work – did not stop there. WAC opened a branch in Kafr Kari. In a sense, it was a rebellion against the contractors because, going from house to house and talking to the women and men, and explaining that women would be protected by their legal rights, they were able to recruit approximately 5,000 women – quite a high number, in spite of agricultural organizations’ claims that the locals are spoiled and do not want to work in agriculture for any wage. According to WAC-Ma’an, there are approximately 1,000 Arab women who are registered with them who want to work in agriculture, even at minimum wage, and are not employed or whose employment is sporadic. WAC states that some “have not found employment because farmers are not interested in hiring them.”
The organization claims that 83 percent of Arab women in Israel are unemployed.
Tayara blames two groups: the government, which failed the Arab workers when it promised to reduce the number of foreign workers in Israel in order to enable the Arabs to find work; and second, the patriarchal Arab society in which the males of households do not want their daughters/wives to work.
These, she says, are the main reasons for poverty in the Arab sector. And to complete the circle, “unemployment and poverty are the basis of the violence that we are facing in the Arab sector,” she says. “I am not against the foreign workers, but against their being exploited,” she explains. “They think coming to Israel is like coming to heaven, and they find it’s not. They pay a lot of money to get here, and if they leave their work or ask for their rights to be respected, they risk losing their job and the money that they invested.”
Moreover, “They come here without families so they can be at the fields 24 hours, or whenever the farmers need them. Arab women cannot. They have to return to their homes and families.”
There is no competition, and usually the Arab women are the losers. The farmers prefer the foreign workers for these reasons, and this is how the unemployment rate in the Arab sector became so high.
The subject of unemployment in the Arab sector, she complains, has not been brought up by Arab Knesset members.
“WAC-Ma’an doesn’t lack farmers to send workers to. We are in contact with thousands of farmers, but it takes time to convince them to hire the Arab workers because they benefit more from the foreign workers,” she explains.
“Some farmers will use the Arab workers at times of pressure at work. They will use a small number of workers, like a person uses a spare tire on his car,” she exclaims in frustration.
Tayara says that WAC-Ma’an and the women work hard, often at unsocial hours, and sometimes in extreme temperatures.
They work from the heart, but they face difficulties because they cannot work as they want because of government restrictions. In addition, since the work is seasonal, there may be periods when the workers are unemployed.
Because of these factors, the women seem to be taking a step backward for every step forward.
Take Insaf, 42, from Baka al-Gharbiya.
She worked for two months through WAC-Ma’an. An advertisement for work on the Internet led her to the Baka office in search of work to supplement her husband’s income.
Married at 22, she now has five children ranging in age from 10 to 19.
With the high cost of education and the demands of children and running a household, making ends meet proved difficult. Against the wishes of her sisters, she registered her name, and was offered a job in a nursery on a moshav. It was the first job she ever held. Her reward of NIS 4,800 in her second week of work was a great feeling.
But although she was very satisfied with the work, it was not easy. She left her home at 5 a.m., and returned at 5:30 p.m. Round-trip travel time to the moshav was three hours, and her children complained that they never saw her. In addition, she developed a sensitivity to the chemicals sprayed on the flowers, which ultimately forced her to leave.
Now that she has felt the satisfaction and power of earning money and contributing to household finances, she is not stopping. She will soon be starting work in a nursing home.
HAVING PARTICIPATED in the course for two years, Insaf feels as if she has changed 180 degrees. “I am a new person, and people in my community see me in a new light,” she declares proudly. “I am now confident, and am able to look people in the eye when I talk,” she says, adding that “I now have a say in the house, and I am much more patient while dealing with my children and friends.”
Insaf is happy with the changes in her family life also.
“The courses have benefited many women, and given them courage.
Some learned to drive, fixed or bought things for their homes, started college, started paying more attention to their appearance, and sicknesses lessened,” she says happily.
Families, including her own, started pulling together to help with household chores. She laughingly recalls her husband hanging the clothes out to dry. “My children now help around the house, and my husband even learned to cook!” she says.
When quizzed about his cooking skills, she laughs. “My food is much better!” Tayara started out the way most of the female workers do, so she is able to relate to the women and speak from experience, and from her heart.
“I feel it in my skin,” she says.
“All my life I have respected working women. Some people cry about hard situations, but it made me stronger, it made me go forward,” she says. “Work creates a revolution in a woman. However, the conditions must be right. When I was no longer being taken advantage of, my mind was clear and I could plan my life,” she says.
Tayara’s message echoes among the Arab women workers.
“We want to change society. We are looking at two paths. Women should know they can go to WAC-Ma’an, because we can help. We can advance women financially, which gives women a lot of self-respect.
Additionally, the politicians must look at the situation of women. They can not forget about half of society.
We do not want to hear them just talking about women’s rights. We want solutions!”