By Emmanuel Farajun, Tel Aviv, July 1979. Originally published in Hebrew by The Israeli Socialist Organization (MATZPEN) in “Dapim Adumim” (“Red Pages”), no 5, May 1978.


Palestinian Workers, A Reserve Army of Labour in the Israeli Economy

Chapter-3: Mobility

One of the determinants of the Arab work force is its mobility. This mobility is multi-faceted and is part of their living conditions in Israel. The Arab labour force consists of workers who can easily be dismissed. They are employed mainly in the private sector, enabling it to adjust itself to market conditions, to crises and to quick increases in production when necessary. There are two reasons why these workers can be so easily fired: firstly, they are employed on a daily basis and secondly, they lack any form of political protection or repre­sentation. Economically speaking, this mobility is two-fold: geographic mobility and inter­factory mobility. Most of the Jewish work-force is employed on a permanent basis, by one particular employer and receive a monthly salary. The decision to fire a Jewish worker, although legally in the hands of the employer, is tied up with political pressures, with compensation, with the Histadrut and sometimes even with a whole structure designed to find alternative employment for unemployed Jewish workers. The Arab workers, on the other hand, are absolutely mobile.

One of the ways to measure mobility is by checking the number of times an employee changes his place of work and how many years Arabs tend to stay in a specific occupation as opposed to Jews.

Since 1967 there has been only one survey on the number of job changes that workers make. The results of this survey (dating from 1971) are shown here. They denote, in per centaqes, the number of workers who didn’t change their place of work over the five years preceding the survey and the number of workers who had changed once, twice, three times or more.

The distribution of salaried workers (percentages) according to the number of times they changed their place of work in the years 1966-71, their nationalities and their ages 1
Arab salaried workers
Jewish salaried workers
20-34 years old
20-34 years old
No change
1 change
2 changes
3 or more


This table shows us two important things: firstly, Arab workers change their place of work much more frequently than Jewish workers. For example, 20 per cent of Arab salaried workers changed their place of work three times or more in the period covered by the table as opposed to only 3.5 per cent of the Jewish salaried workers. Within the 20-34 age group, 25 per cent of the Arab salaried workers changed their place of work more than three times as opposed to a mere 5 per cent of the Jews.

Secondly, according to the table the older Jewish salaried workers tend to be more stable than the younger Jews, whereas the Arabs remain mobile even later in life and the difference between the overall mobility among Arab workers and the mobility of the 20-34 group is much smaller than among Jews.

The Arab worker tends to work outside his village. There are very few factories in the Arab villages and towns and most villages do not even have a workshop employing more than 2-3 workers, let alone a factory. Moreover, the small bit of land in Arab hands, after the massive confiscations of the fifties, cannot provide employment for young villagers who want to work in their own villages. That is why the percentage of Arab workers living in Israel working away from home is very high and will probably continue to rise with more and more youngsters joining the labour force. They constitute, in fact, 50 per cent of the over­all workforce.2 Together with the workers from the occupied territories, about 75 per cent of the Arab workers working in Israel, are working away from home. This is a very high percentage. We won’t attempt to fully analyse it and will say only this: in addition to the reasons given above (i.e. the lack of employment in Arab villages and towns) there are certain obstacles which prevent Arabs from moving closer to their place of work. It is difficult to find accommodation, it is even difficult to get a permit to live permanently in a Jewish settlement, since many Jewish villages and moshavim do not admit Arabs as do many towns, like Tsefat, Karmiel, ‘Arad, to name a few. Even in Tel Aviv and Haifa there are many problems, since there are only a few quarters in which people are willing to let Arabs in and many local residents oppose the sale or the lease of flats to Arabs. The lack of permanence and the need to move from one place of work to another, according to the demands of the economy – make a permanent urban dwelling less attractive to the Arab worker.

Whatever the reasons, this geographical mobility enables the Israeli economy to exploit the Arab work force. When there is a large construction project in Jerusalem or Kiriat Shmona, say, the Jewish workers tied to their own permanent employment are, for the most part, reluctant to uproot themselves. The obvious choice for temporary, though urgently needed labour, falls to the Arab villagers from the Galilee, the Triangle, the West Bank and the Gaza Strip.

Another type of mobility is the mobility between places of work. A worker who has to travel to his place of work anyway, can switch jobs more easily from a factory situated 40 km north of his village to a factory situated 30 km west of his village, than a worker living close to his place of work.

This inter-factory mobility and the ease with which these workers can be fired, grants the Israeli economy, particularly in the private sector, its flexibility. For example:

“‘Solel Boneh’ announced the dismissal of 150 workers in the ‘Afulah area because of a sharp decline in production demands. A promise was made to try and keep a “skilled nucleus” in the region. Senior sources informed me that the assumed responsibility for employment, etc., and Ministry of Housing will have to see to it that the Jewish construction workers in the Jezre’el valley find work.”3

It is well known that the permanent skilled nucleus of “Solel Boneh” workers including administrators, engineers and technicians is almost totally Jewish. Exactly a month earlier another report in the same paper quoted another example, connected with the elevator factory “Herut”: “As a result of the recession in the construction industry, there will be a controlled layoff of a number of workers. The first to go will be workers from the occupied territories. An effort will be made to transfer engineers and technicians to work abroad.”4 Another example demonstrating the relation between the mobility of Arab workers and the mo­bility of Jewish workers: in 1976/77 there was a sharp recession in the construction in­dustry in Israel. As a result, thousands, i.e. 1,500 Jewish workers and some 10,000 Arab workers, had to be fired. In other words, for every Jew, six Arabs were fired.5 On the whole, 30,000 Arabs were fired in the construction industry alone in 1974-77. On the other hand, a total of 10,000 Jewish workers were fired throughout the economy in 1976, as a result of the recession.6

Every employer in Israel knows that it is best, in times of crisis, to fire Arabs first. Even the kibbutzim industries are aware of this: “Our work force is divided to three groups: temporary, i.e. Arab workers, unskilled labourers, i.e. Jewish hired hands and skilled managers, i.e. members of kibbutzim.”7

With regards to the occupied territories, Aryeh Bergman reports in his survey that a third of the workers stay with one employer two years or more and only 16 per cent stay more than 4 years. These figures indicate a high degree of mobility on the one hand and on the other hand a growing dependence on the part of many businessmen and farm owners on Arabs from the occupied territories. In Gaza, according to the Ministry of Labour out of 6,000 workers working in 27 factories in the region, some 430 left their place of work during their first 3 years of employment.8

Arab workers, together with 25,000 Jewish workers from the development towns are the only ones to do seasonal and mobile jobs, like harvesting, picking, weeding, etc., as well as packing and jobs in food factories.

Such agricultural workers almost never get a permanent job or a regular salary. According to Histadrut regulations, an agricultural worker is considered permanent only after 12 conse­cutive years with the same employer. Employers prefer, of course, to fire workers, even temporarily, so they won’t be considered permanent.

As this is more easily done with Arabs than with Jews, employers prefer to employ Arabs. In a week of the dismissals in “Solel Boneh”, mentioned above, the redundant Jewish workers asked some 70 kibbutzim and moshavim in the region to stop using Arab labour on building sites and hire Jews in their place. The kibbutzim and moshavim refused, knowing full well the heavy commitments they would have to undertake if they hired Jewish workers, i.e. perks, demands for permanence and the difficulty of firing them. When an Arab finishes a job – he goes. Not so a Jewish worker. The different type of work done by Arabs and Jews, as explained in Chapter-2, may cause the dismissal of a Jewish worker occasionally, for two reasons: firstly because of the preference given to Arab workers, since they lack any rights what­soever, as explained above, and secondly, because Arabs are employed only in absolutely vital production jobs and rarely in less vital service jobs.

This is what happened in October 1977, when some 200 workers, men and women, were fired from “Kitan Dimona”. Hundreds of families were left without an income as a result of temporary difficulties in the factory upon which their livelihood depends. The owners of the factory, the “Klal” company, paid little head to them and went ahead with their plans. Throughout the negotiations, the management kept suggesting that they fire Arab production workers instead of Jewish services workers, if the latter agreed to replace the Arabs at the machines, where work conditions involved tremendous noise and tension. Nobody agreed, certainly not for the salaries offered.

Mr. Steigrad, the director-general of ‘Kitan Dimona’, where about 400 workers from the occupied territories (a third of the workers) were employed, since there were not enough Jewish workers, prepared to work at the looms, the spindles, the finishing machines, etc., said that any worker prepared to do so, would get a job immediately.

The work-conditions in the spinning rooms, at terribly noisy machines, which demand con­stant concentration and attention, are most demanding. The daily wage was 70-80 IL per day for Jewish workers and 59 IL for Arabs.

In some sectors, as we saw in Chapter-2, the Arabs play a key role in the supply of manpower. It seems that in spite of the fact that the workers from the occupied territories constitute only 7-10 per cent of the overall number of workers employed by the Israeli economy, their immediate response to demand in the above key occupations is very high indeed. This mani­fests itself in their response to vacancies in the official labour exchanges – through which only half of the workers are employed.

The proportion of workers from the occupied territories in jobs filled through the labour exchanges
(monthly average for the years 1973-75)9
Total number of filled vacancies
Vacancies filled by workers from occupied territories
Percentage of vacancies filled by workers from occupied territories
All workers:
Construction workers:
Unskilled labourers:


Although the above table deals only with part of the overall movement every month, we can conclude from the trends reflected in it several things. In the construction industry the proportion of workers from the occupied territories is decisive. Moreover, it is probable that most of the workers not hired through the labour exchange are also Arabs, both from Israel and from the occupied territories.

The proportion of workers from the occupied territories working as unskilled labourers is also very high. Their proportion in all sectors rises annually, even during recession years. In 1975 it was 26 per cent of the overall number of workers – a high percentage considering that it refers to all salaried workers in Israel, including clerks, managers, salesmen, etc. The fact that the Arab work force is the reserve force of the Israeli economy is reflected in the growth of this work force, throughout the recession of 1973-78. Unlike the 1965-6 recession, the present crisis has not brought on Jewish unemployment but instead has caused a decline in investments and in the size of the Arab work force. The following table shows that although in 1973-77 there was an overall increase in manpower in Israel, the number of Arab workers resident in Israel remained static and even decreased during the recession years (All figures are in thousands).

Total number of employees
Arab employees (Israeli resident)
Arab employees – male


As stated above in chapter 2, even the Bank of Israel claims that the proportion of Arabs employed by the Israeli economy depends solely upon the demand for the Arab work force. This work force lacks any political protection and is employed for purely economic reasons, i.e. only when the employer gains directly by employing them.

Continue to… Chapter-4: Wages and working conditions


  1. Appendix 2, Israeli Statistical Annual, 1971, p.22
  2. H. Harari, opp. cit. p. 22, No.7
  3. Yedi’ot Aharonot, 14.12.77
  4. Yedi’ot Aharonot, 14.11.77
  5. Yedi’ot Aharonot, 15.9.77
  6. Yedi’ot Aharonot, Jan. 1978: “110,000 were fired in 1976
  7. This Week in Hakibbutz Ha’artzi“, August 1976
  8. Ministry of Labour, Report on activities, Gaza Strip, 1975-6
  9. Statistical Monthly, No.7, 1976. p. 59