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Vol. 76/No. 9      March 5, 2012

Strike reflects changing
working class in Israel
The first nationwide strike to hit Israel in five years has drawn attention to the struggles of hundreds of thousands of contract workers, often Ethiopian and Russian immigrants and Arab citizens of Israel, who receive lower pay and fewer benefits than their directly hired coworkers.

The four-day strike by the Histadrut, Israel’s largest and until recently its only union federation, was centered in government agencies and state-owned industries and services. While it won higher pay and benefits for the contract workers, it did not end their second-class status.

“The contract employees still need to be organized,” Histadrut spokesperson Avital Shapira told the Militant in a phone interview from Tel Aviv. “But it will be easier now because they will be receiving higher pay and will be motivated to join our union.”

Under the Feb. 12 agreement cleaners and security guards in the public sector will get a 20 percent pay raise starting in January 2013 with future increases tied to union contracts. They will also obtain some benefits, such as subsidized meals and sick pay, currently given only to direct employees.

Under a separate agreement with private businesses, contract workers are supposed to be hired directly after nine months if they are working more than 170 hours a month, and get the same pay and benefits from the start.

The use of workers hired through employment agencies started in the 1970s, but has mushroomed since the 1990s, Amir Paz-Fuchs, a professor at Ono Academic College near Tel Aviv, told the Militant. The fight to improve the conditions of contract workers was given a boost by the social protest movement in the middle of last year, he said. Those protests focused on the lack of affordable housing and inflation.

The Israeli government passed a law in 2008, Paz-Fuchs said, that required bosses to hire temporary workers directly after nine months on the job. But to get around the law, bosses often fired workers before the time was up and rehired them later, what Paz-Fuchs calls “the revolving door.”

Employment agencies began calling themselves service companies and “contractors” to skirt the law, said Gadeer Nicola from Kav LaOved’s (Worker’s Hotline) Nazareth office.

“Most of the cleaners I get to meet are new immigrants from Ethiopia, from the former Soviet Union and of course Israeli Palestinians, and a smaller number of Israeli workers,” Shay Cohen, the organizational secretary of Koach La Ovdim (Democratic Workers’ Organization), a union federation founded in 2007, said in an interview from Haifa. “It’s a good thing that the Histadrut went on strike and decided to fight this issue, it was an expression of solidarity. But the agreement they won is not enough.”

Changes in working-class

The fight over contract workers sheds light on the changing composition of the working class in Israel over the last few decades.

The working class in Israel includes Jewish immigrants who emigrate to Israel—including Ethiopians, Russians and eastern Europeans—and have citizenship rights, as well as Israeli Palestinians who are citizens of Israel and make up about 20 percent of the country’s population.

After the second intifada in late 2000, when Islamist groups in the occupied territories organized armed actions, the Israeli government cut down the number of Palestinian workers from those territories allowed to work inside Israel. Instead, it sought to fill its need for cheap labor by bringing in non-Jewish immigrants who are given four-year work visas.

“When our center was established in 1991, it was mainly for Palestinians from the occupied territories,” Nicola said. Now the group provides services in Chinese, Romanian, Russian, French, and English.

There are more than 116,000 foreign workers with temporary work permits in Israel, according to Israel’s Central Bureau of Statistics, including about 28,000 from the Philippines who work primarily in home health care, 27,000 Thais who work mostly in agriculture, and 10,000 Chinese employed in construction. The bureau estimates there are more than 70,000 undocumented workers.

“Jewish, Palestinian, and immigrant workers all face exploitation,” said Wehbe Badarne, director of the Arab Workers Union in Israel. “But for immigrants on work permits it is even worse. There are reports that 70 percent of them never even get paid minimum wage.”

According to the Bank of Israel, only 25,000 Palestinians from the West Bank were issued permits allowing them to work in Israel in 2011, down from 115,000 in 1992 and 65,000 in 1994. Thousands of Palestinians from the West Bank who work without permits inside Israel are themselves treated like undocumented workers.

“The immigrants are not to blame for taking jobs from the Palestinians of the occupied territories,” Nicola says. “The answer has to be organizing and equalizing the workers’ conditions.”
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Workers’ unity steeled in previous strike battle
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On the Picket Line  
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