The price of work

A common denominator that binds some Israelis, migrants and Palestinian Arabs together is bondage.

art 88 (photo credit: )
art 88
(photo credit: )

How much would you be willing to pay for a job? No, I'm not asking how much you'd be willing to pay someone to work for you. I'm asking how much you'd be willing to pay in order to get a job. And I'm not talking about your dream job either, that job which would make all your hopes and dreams come true; I'm talking about a security-guard job, or a construction job, or domestic work, taking care of an elderly person. How much would you be willing to risk for such a job? I know; it's a strange question. To help you out, let's make it a multiple choice question:

(A) NIS 800 per month

(B) NIS 8,000

(C) Your home

Mrs. M. from Cluj, Romania, answered C: her home. She mortgaged her home to a local agency rep as collateral against a $2,500 loan, added another $1,000 in cash, and in return was supposed to get a legal job as a caregiver in Israel. She was to pay the loan back in five installments, being left with virtually nothing during her first five months of work in Israel. You could shrug your shoulders and retort: "Well, if it is worth it for her, then why not?"

Here are two reasons why not: First, charging workers money for job mediation is illegal under Israeli law. Second, Mrs. M. never really got the job. Zvika from the agency which brought Mrs. M. into Israel told Mrs. M. that her intended employer had just died, and then sent her working for other employers. She earned less than minimum wages, got less than enough to eat, and ended up with a less than valid work visa. Mrs. M. was brave enough to walk out and fight back. With the help of Kav LaOved, Mrs. M. is taking legal action against Zvika and his agency. But this still does not guarantee that Mrs. M. won't lose her home in Romania.

"Tsk, tsk, tsk. A poor third-world woman falls prey to a local shyster, who takes advantage of her third-world anguish and despair." You might be thinking just that, with your first-world newspaper folded under your arm, as you walk past the Israeli security guard, who didn't feel quite so first-class, when, faced with the question "How much would you pay for a job?" was cornered into responding B: NIS 8,000.

NIS 8,000 is the very sum which Hashmira security workers employed at RAFAEL (the Israeli armament development authority) were contractually obligated to pay if their employment were terminated in under a year. Whether the worker quit or got fired, it's NIS 8,000 either way. The excuse for this penalty is a two-week training which the workers received. But this excuse does not make the NIS 8,000 fine legal. Since the fine is unreasonably high, and the employer does not commit to provide work in return, this "early retirement" fine will not stand up in court. But since most workers are not aware of the legal details, and do not have access to courts, many workers in similar situations bow down their heads and pay. This phenomenon is common to many banks, security companies, telemarketing and communication companies.

We are left with one more answer to the question "how much would you be willing to pay for a job?"

If you chose A: NIS 800 per month, then you could be a Palestinian construction worker. A Palestinian worker, who gets a security clearance to work in Israel, needs a "sponsor" employer in order to obtain a work permit. Many employers charge for this "sponsorship." NIS 800 per month seems to be the going rate.

THE COMMON denominator here, which binds Israelis, migrants and Palestinian Arabs together, is bondage.

Changing employers, under any circumstances (a better job offer, illegal exploitation, cutbacks), puts workers in danger of losing a substantial amount of money and/or their legal status. Workers have to put up with whatever form of exploitation, legal or illegal, or suffer the consequences. All these coercive practices are illegal.

So what went wrong with the Israeli labor market, which makes it possible for employers to illegally force workers to bow their heads to exploitation?

Two things went wrong. First, the social security network was destroyed. In today's Israel, if you don't grab the first job offer you get, you might have to wait a long while until the next one comes along. Second, there is no proper enforcement of labor rights. Minimum wage violations alone affect 16% of the workforce. The enforcement situation is so obviously catastrophic, that at the end of July a Knesset subcommittee was formed to consider the issue of labor rights enforcement.

Here's one idea for the subcommittee: a huge Immigration Police force is busy deporting migrant workers who lost their work permits because they left underpaying employers; at the same time a larger number of migrant workers are brought in legally. Why not turn this Immigration Police into a labor rights police, which will make sure that all workers in Israel are paid according to the law (thereby increasing the cost of migrant labor and taking away the incentive to employ non-Israelis in the first place)?

In the meantime, a Romanian migrant domestic worker from Cluj, an Israeli citizen security guard from Haifa, and a Palestinian builder from Kalkilya are all bound together by illegal exploitation of labor and a basic lack of social justice.

The writer is a board member in the worker rights NGO Kav LaOved - Worker's Hotline.