Marking the 'free market' this May Day

Some workers are free to enjoy growth, while others are geographically, socially or ethnically singled out for dead-end jobs.

may day 88 (photo credit: )
may day 88
(photo credit: )
To celebrate May Day in today's Israel feels almost like a parody. What could be less relevant to today's economic reality than international socialism? Free market, small government and a flexible labor force are the order of the day. But how free is our free market? Suppose you are a perfectly legally employed migrant caregiver, who paid something like $6,000 (illegally charged, of course) for the right to work in Israel. And suppose you get pregnant and want to keep your baby. And suppose even that your employers like you so much, that they want you to keep working for them. Regardless of all this, in Israel today you are not free to keep working if you have your baby. Israel's free market means that some workers are not free to be mothers. Suppose you're an illegal Palestinian worker from Tarkumiya near Hebron who builds homes for Jews in Jaffa. And suppose you want to go outside for a walk at the end of the day, to breathe some air. Well, you'd better not. You'd better hide in the construction site and keep out of sight. If you don't you might be beaten, robbed or even shot down by the border police, as happened last October in what the investigating authorities called "an illegal use of weapons." Israel's free market means that some workers are not free to move about. Suppose you're an Israeli cleaning or security worker, and suppose you, like most of your colleagues, don't get the money you deserve, including the legally warranted pension allocations. Suppose you decide to mobilize your friends and form a union, to demand what you legally deserve. Well, you'd better figure out how to cover your rent or mortgage for the next few months, because you're quite likely to find yourself out of a job. Israel's free market means that many workers are not free to organize. SUPPOSE YOU'RE a migrant worker, who, like many others, is still far from covering the debt you took to pay illegally charged brokerage fees. And suppose, God forbid, that your husband died back home, some thousands of miles away. Well, you'd better not attend the funeral, and you'd better not go back home to comfort your children. If you do, you might not be allowed to come back, and you could wind up a widow deep in debt with no way out. Israel's free market means that some workers are not free to grieve. Or suppose you're a Palestinian who works legally in an Israeli-owned factory in the industrial zone of a Jewish settlement in the vicinity of Nablus. And suppose that the filter that should protect you against toxic fumes lasts only for a couple of hours, while your shift is actually 12 hours long. Well, you'd better get used to breathing those toxic fumes, because if you call a safety inspector you'll no longer have get the paycheck that feeds your six children. Israel's free market means that some workers are not free to breathe. Suppose you're an Israeli citizen living in the Negev. And suppose the one factory which is the main source of employment in your area is treating you like dirt. And suppose an energetic, brave "docu-activist" comes round to see what's going on. Well, you'd better put a mask on your face if you dare to be interviewed. Otherwise, as the clich says, "you'll never work in this town again." Israel's free market means that some workers are not free to show their faces. THE ISRAELI free market is thriving. Read the latest Bank of Israel report: all the indices point up. But if you read closely, you'll see that they point up selectively. Growth is enjoyed only by few workers, mainly those in hi-tech and finance. Unskilled workers and workers in most traditional industries do not enjoy any real increase in wages or a genuine reduction in unemployment. Israel's free market is a segregated market. Some workers are free to enjoy growth, while others are geographically, socially or ethnically singled out for an insufficient supply of dead-end jobs. And if they try to lead a family life, protect their health, speak out freely or demand what is rightfully theirs, they are likely to be forced into a situation which economists call "chronic unemployment." Israel's free market means that capital is free to segregate the labor force and reduce workers into slaves. This free market depends on what is called "small government," which is neo-liberal-speak for no budget to enforce worker rights, no investment in educating unskilled workers and no welfare for those marginalized by the free market. The second support for Israel's free market is called "flexible labor force," which is neo-liberal-speak for the freedom to dismiss workers out of hand if they dare to complain, organize or speak out. IS IT POSSIBLE to pull together the power of all those abused workers into a transformative force? Can one make those people pushed ever closer to joining free market slavery wake up and turn the wheel? Are the few emerging worker organizations - security workers in Rehovot, so-called temporary postal workers, even Palestinians in the industrial zone of Atarot - are these emerging unions the last sigh of a dying past, or the first cry of rebirth? I can't tell. But they definitely make celebrating May Day in today's Israel anything but a parody. The writer is a board member of worker rights NGO Kav LaOved, Workers' Hotline, and lectures at the Academic College of Tel-Aviv-Jaffa.