For over a decade, West Bank and Gazan labourers in Israel were all but ignored. For sections of the Palestinian nationalist movement, they were an embarassing symbol of the failure of the policy of sumud (steadfastness) to prevent the occupation from effecting deep structural changes in the society and economy of the occupied territories. For the international media, migrant labour was undramatic when compared to more newsworthy guerrilla operations or demonstrations. Israeli society, albeit with exceptions, preferred not to notice its Arab labour and, when the ‘Jewish’ state’s embarassing dependence on non-Jewish labour was noticed, particularly on Muslim feastdays, the conviction that the Arabs were more dependent on Israel than vice versa was a comforting reaffirmation of ethnic superiority.
The 1980s have seen the development of interest in the migrant workers. The nationalist movement has embarked on attempts to recruit them into unions; the international media has found numerous opportunities to draw comparison with South African migrant labour, together with a plethora of ‘human interest’ stories; Israeli sociologists have discovered a topic worthy of newspaper articles and treatises; and the Histadrut has been under increasing international pressure to justify its attitude towards Palestinian workers. The Palestinian intifada (uprising) which began on 9 December 1987 brought stayaways by migrant workers and, sure enough, sectors of the Israeli economy ground to a halt.
These events have a great significance which the Palestinian nationalist movement and Israeli employers and state will seek to evaluate. The Palestinians have learnt to use a new weapon and Zionism has discovered a weakness forged by its own hand. With this in mind, it is important to understand the conditions under which migrant labourers work because it is only by appreciating the extent of their exploitation that their weaknesses and their strength can be assessed. This article attempts to provide the material for such an understanding.
It should be said that the overwhelming majority of ‘noncitizen Arab workers’ in the Israeli economy are migrant workers, and it is they who are dealt with here. However, thousands of (mostly women) workers in the West Bank and Gaza Strip work for Israeli employers through the medium of local sub-contractors. They too have played a part in inflicting damage on the occupying state in recent months and this should be examined at another time.
As a final introductory note, readers’ attention should be drawn to the excellent article by Emanuel Farjoun in Khamsin 7 (Palestinian Workers in Israel – a reserve army of labour). The following article is more specific in that it deals only with the phenomenon of migrant labour. Nevertheless, it can, in part, be viewed as an update on Farjoun’s piece which should be read by anyone with an interest in the Arab workforce in the Israeli economy.
Who are the hewers of wood?
Estimates of the scale of labour migration from the West Bank and Gaza into Israel vary greatly. Israeli statistics record 20.6 thousand in 1970 (the first year of legal labour migration), rising to 68.7 thousand in 1974 and 90.3 thousand in 1984.1 As a proportion of the West Bank and Gaza labour force, Israeli statistics show migrant workers as constituting 30% since 1973, rising to over 39% in peak quarters of 1983 and 1984.2 In 1983, 43% of the Gazan workforce was engaged in migrant work.3 Yet it is no secret that government figures are incomplete.
Unregistered, illegal migrant work began shortly after the consolidation of the occupation and its control and taxation was a factor in the decision to open labour offices in the occupied territories.4 However, unregistered work continues. Israeli sociologists and Palestinian trade unionists estimate that at least one third of migrant workers are unregistered. This would bring the numbers in the mid-1980s up into the 115-120,000 range.
The ILO has noted estimates of 130,000 and at harvest time,5 numbers as great as 250,000 (larger than the total labour force in 1984 by Israel’s figures) have been mentioned.6 Some of the disparity here can be explained by the fact that the labour force figures do not include under-age workers, many women workers, and students working in their free time. As far back as 1975, Davar reported that 120,000-140,000 migrant workers were active in the Israeli economy.7
Even on the basis of the numbers given for registered migrant labourers, the scale of the employment of West Bankers and Gazans is evident. In 1984, 93.7 thousand residents of the occupied territories (excluding East Jerusalem) were employed in these areas as agricultural workers or as skilled, semi-skilled or unskilled workers in industry, mining, building, transport etc., as against 76.7 thousand employed in such work in Israel.8 If agriculture, which accounts for 37 thousand of those employed in the occupied territories, is removed, it is clear that more workers resident in the occupied territories work for Israeli industry, mining, building, transport etc. firms than work for such Palestinian concerns (63.3 thousand as compared to 56.7 thousand).
According to Mansour, some 70% of migrant workers originate from rural areas.9 A conference in Paris in November 1984 heard that 46.2% of registered migrant workers come from villages, 29% from refugee camps and 24% from towns.10 A survey of Palestinians resident in Israel found that in 1974, 91.7% of skilled Arab industrial workers had fathers who were not wage labourers,11 a clear indication that land expropriation, restrictions on Palestinian farming and enforced competition with subsidised Israeli producers have transformed Palestinian employment patterns.
The number of farmers in Gaza fell from 16,700 in 1970 to 7,400 in 1986 while the number of migrant workers rose from 2,400 to 10,500 in the same period.12 Israeli statistics for 1984 show that 19.5 thousand out of 90.3 thousand migrant workers were also engaged in cultivating farms.13 Semyonov and Lewin-Epstein note that in 1969 more than 50% of the adult residents of the West Bank and Gaza Strip had no schooling and only 17% had more than nine years of education, that in 1975 half of the ‘non-resident Arabs’ employed in Israel had six years of schooling or less.[14. Semyonov and Lewin-Epstein, op cit, pp 9-11.] But it would be erroneous to depict the migrant worker as an uneducated peasant turned proletarian without making some substantial qualifications.
By 1984, only 15% of registered migrant workers had received no schooling and 30% had completed nine or more years.14 Thus, while 50% of children drop out of school before completing nine years of education15 (2,000 dropped out of UNRWA schools in Gaza in 198716), unemployment among graduates has thrust many well educated young people into the Israeli labour market. A seminar in Jerusalem in 1986 established that 8,000 graduates from the West Bank and Gaza Strip were unable to find work in their specialist fields.17 An UNRWA report in 1987 cited evidence that 5,400 West Bank and 2,700 Gazan graduates were unemployed in 1985.18
These actual or potential migrant workers (or emigrants) are not trained in ‘unproductive’ disciplines. The Engineers Association in the West Bank stated that 200 of its 600 members were unemployed in 1985.19 A report in al-Fajr in 1986 notes a chemistry graduate working as a house decorator in Tel Aviv.20 In 1987, al-Bayader al-Siyassi interviewed a Gazan lawyer working in an Israeli factory.21 Large numbers of teachers work in the seasonal labour market in Israel during holidays.22
Availability for migrant work is not simply a matter of being unemployed or of dropping out of school. Physically reaching the labour market frequently requires a major investment of time and limited fmancial resources. Israeli governmental submissions to the ILO claim that:
The great majority of [migrant] workers live at a reasonable commuting distance from their place of work, and travelling to and from work, often together with people from the same village who work at the same place, can help to reinforce village identity.23
The submissions go on to assert that some 20% of registered migrant workers are given permission to stay overnight in Israel. Such claims have been accepted by some observers (Semyonov and Lewin-Epstein, for example). However, a typical week’s return travel from Gaza to Tel Aviv to seek work costs the equivalent of one day’s wages and may take four hours per day.24 Matters are not necessarily better when employers provide transport. In 1985, labourers from Bethlehem working in a bakery in Jerusalem, 20 minutes’ drive away, complained they had to leave home at 1 am to start their shift at 3 am. One of them said: ‘We arrive at the bakery before the doors are open and so we are forced to stand in the street without any protection from the cold’.25
The cost in time and money forces many workers to stay overnight illegally inside the Green Line. Some do this with the collusion of employers and some even take on nightguard jobs to supplement their daytime earnings. In 1985, the Knesset Interior Committee was told that 50,000 West Bankers and Gazans slept overnight in Tel Aviv alone.26 The conditions under which such workers live will be dealt with later. In Qalqilia in the north of the West Bank, Gazan workers live in hostels or in the grounds of the mosque in order to be able to reach their places of work.
These workers return home between once a week to once a month. Some as young as fourteen years of age have to share sleeping space with people they do not know.27 But it is not only those who have relatively large distances to travel who live away from home. The majority of Arab workers in Petah Tikva come from the villages of Salfit, Firkha, Qablan and Tel near Nablus and Tulkarm, yet a number of them share rented rooms in order to be able to get to work. In 1985, a room of three by four metres, shared by five to eight men cost $80-120.28
The mechanisms through which migrant labour is recruited are worth outlining, not least because they are major factors in maintaining the extent of exploitation faced by Palestinian workers. In theory, all would be migrant labourers must register at an Israeli labour office in the occupied territories and from there be allotted a job. A payment office is responsible for the worker being renumerated. Seven offices were established in the West Bank in 1968 and a further 30 were set up later. Semyonov and Lewin-Epstein note that procedures have not been adhered to and that, in practice, during the boom of the late 1960s and early 1970s, many workers would fmd employment (presumably illegally) and then have it regularised post eventu.29 On other occasions, Israeli labour exchange officials actually go into the West Bank and Gaza Strip to seek out workers:
…the Hadera-Samaria labour exchange cannot find enough applicants to fill employers’ requests, the State Employment Service said yesterday. It said the director of the exchange, Avraham Bechar, has had to make special recruitment trips to Samaria and local Arab villages to find the 5,000 hands urgently needed by metalworking, food, wood products, and produce-processing and packing plants applying to his office for workers.30
The offices were established in the occupied territories as a means of regulating the flow of Palestinian workers, a flow which had already begun spontaneously. Such regulation was based around three considerations: control over the number of migrant workers; control over their movement inside the Green Line; and control over their wages.
Initially, a quota system was enforced but it was soon relaxed as implied above. This is not to say that any worker who applies for a work permit receives one. Many are ruled out on ‘security’ grounds and some offices have a reputation for refusing permits to younger workers. Interviews in al-Tali’a with workers seeking employment in the Petah Tikva area reveal that the offices actually force workers into the unregistered sector. The interviews indicated two ways in which this happens. Firstly workers claimed that:
Jewish employers refuse to employ anyone if he is registered with the lishka [work office] and so they do not have to observe any of our union or legal rights. And when employers learn that one of the workers wants to be registered, they refuse and say to him, “There is no place for you here. Leave the firm”.
Secondly, they said that:
…in Petah Tikva the work offices refuse to issue permits to Arab workers… The Israeli work offices demand [that employers] hire Jewish workers and threaten employers with fines if they take on unregistered Arab workers. However, the employers prefer Arab workers who they take on for donkey work and at half the wages of Jewish workers.31
Permits (of six months maximum) specify the place of work; overnight stays in Israel are generally forbidden. This is clearly a policy related to concerns over security but also affords a means of preventing workers’ self-organisation. Even in enterprises employing large numbers of migrant workers, it is rare to find more than a handful from the same village, camp, or part of a town. In other words, there is little chance of workers being able to organise collectively after the day’s work and travel is over.
Control over remuneration is couched in terms suggesting a concern to ensure that wages should ‘be equal to those of Israeli workers with comparable jobs and skills’.32 The experience of Palestinian workers, however, suggests that the policy is rather more concerned with ensuring that tax deductions of 30-40% of gross pay are made. Thus al-Tali’a in 1985, reported the sacking of 33 workers from a Jerusalem bakery.33 The workers had been on strike, demanding wage parity with Jewish colleagues. When they approached the Bethlehem work office through which they had been hired, they were told by the manager that the matter was one for the Histadrut.
Interviewing a leading West Bank union organiser, Taggart quotes cases of registered workers being paid well below the official minimum wage. He also tells of the experience of Musa from Serat who:
When he asked for his wages he was told to go back in a fortnight. This he did and was told nothing was owed to him. He went to al-Madjdil work office where he was referred to the Gaza office which, in turn, referred him back to al-Madjdil where he was told that there was no proof that he was owed money. He returned to the employer who told him he would be shot if he complained further.34
Israeli sociologist Michael Shalev, accusing the work offices of complicity in the under-paying of Arab workers, has stated that, except for construction workers, the offices simply do not check employers’ calculations.35 Even when formal requirements are observed, Semyonov and Lewin-Epstein note that:
Monitoring by the payment center, which emphasizes compliance with the law, [thus] legitimizes wage gaps between resident and non-resident employees.36
Parallel to the official mediation of the work office between employer and worker, is mediation by the simsar or middleman. Just as the opportunity of making a profit from land sales to settlers has brought unsavoury Arab and Jewish entrepreneurs into alliance, so has the opportunity to profit from the demand for and availability of labour. Al-Tali’a interviewed a number of workers employed in Rishon Letzion:
All the Arab workers of Rishon Letzion work through middle-men who set the pay rates and distribute wages to ‘their’ workers on the various sites. As they are responsible to the municipality for the work of the labourers, no one really knows exactly how many Arab workers there are. The workers who were interviewed put the number at around 150 with three middlemen.
There is no job security and wages are determined when a man is hired. The pay level varies from middleman to middleman and on the ability of the workers to levy the occasional rise. Workers ‘Issa Jibran, Yasser Souayfa, and Khalid Tamizi stated that the average wage varies between 16 and 20 shekels per day but that it depends where the workers come from. Those from Ramallah get 16 shekels, those from Gaza 20 shekels, and those from Hebron 18 shekels. This discrepancy is due to the plurity of middlemen…
More than twenty of the Gazan workers have not been paid for a month and a half. The reason? Well, the excuse given by the middleman is that his boss has not yet finished his [annual] military service. The workers never cease to worry about this…
The majority of workers who answered questions noted that the middlemen break the workers into work gangs, each dealt with individually by threats, promises and deception. All these show the proficiency of the middlemen in dealing with the workers. Protests about money and hours of work and supervision bring small gain which is lost before long.37
The slave markets’ along and inside the Green Line have been well documented in recent years as both the Israeli and the European press have begun to take notice of the migrant worker phenomenon. Unlike the ‘mops’ or ‘hirings’ which existed in England well into the 20th century, the slave markets take place every day, in Jerusalem, at the entrance to Gaza, and in West Bank towns like Qalqilia. Beginning at dawn, they are sites where middlemen or direct employers find unregistered labourers. Worker is pitted against worker in the rush for approaching cars and vans. The employer picks the tool deemed best for the job – a healthy looking young worker, a reliable looking older man, someone with a skill. Negotiations are minimal – a wage is offered and if one worker does not accept it, one who has not worked for a while will.
The majority of jobs available through the slave market are short term and last a few days at best, so the worker must return to the market frequently. To get three days work in a week is to do quite well. Only a fraction of those who offer themselves for work each day find it. One article, written in 1987, talks of 20 out of 150 workers at one of the Tel Aviv markets finding work on a given day.38
The transactions of the markets are, of course, technically illegal: the workers do not have permits and the employers are evading tax. Road blocks and the occasional police raid sometimes force markets to shift to another spot. The Israeli government has stated that in 1984, 6,000 unregistered workers were turned back at road blocks.39
Shalev believes that the failure of work offices to monitor the wages of registered workers may be a deliberate ploy to persuade employers to comply with registration procedures. He cites the instance of one worker who, had he been paid according to regulations, would have received three times his actual pay and would thus have been a less attractive employee. The complacency of the Israeli authorities is evident, even in the diplomatic language of the 1986 and 1987 ILO annual reports. The 1986 report notes (my emphases throughout):
No major changes in the level of irregular employment of workers from the occupied territories in Israel were noted in 1985. The Israeli authorities consider this stability – a view shared by the Histadrut – to be proof that the difficult economic situation in Israel has not, as might have been feared, forced employers to turn away from official recruitment channels…
The Israeli authorities stressed that they have continued to apply the usual measures aimed at reducing irregular employment: as often noted in the past, these consist of information campaigns, checks on roads into Israel and penalties imposed especially on employers. They also pointed to the pursuit of the policy of regularisation, intended to assist workers discovered in irregular employment: however, no figures were provided enabling an assessment to be made of the number of workers whose situation has been regularised…40
The 1987 report observes ‘no major changes in the level of irregular employment in Israel of workers from the occupied territories’, notes that penalties have been increased and, commenting on Israeli measures, again says, ‘However, there is little chance of measuring the impact of such activities since no figures are available’.41 Arab trade unionists not only deny the existence of Israeli information campaigns but point to the fact that Faisal Hindi, a trade unionist in Qalqilia, was summoned in 1987 for producing a pamphlet explaining the legal situation of migrant workers.42
A breakdown of registered migrant workers in 1982 shows that 37.6% were engaged in unskilled work, 38.2% in semi-skilled work, 23.1% in skilled\craft work, 0.3% in clerical and sales work and 0.8% in professional and managerial work.43 Semyonov and Lewin-Epstein demonstrate that in order to rectify the imbalance in occupation status between ‘non-citizen Arabs’ and other ethnic groups in the Israeli labour market, 74% of European-American Jews, 63.0% of Asian-African Jews and (interestingly) 51.9% of Israeli Arabs would have had to change their jobs in 1982.44 They further show the increasing channelling of migrant workers into certain occupational categories.
The concept of ‘Arab work’ is becoming more a reality as time passes. Thus, ‘the lower the status of an occupation, the larger the proportion of non-citizen Arabs who entered it by 1982’.45 Were migrant workers evenly distributed throughout the Israeli economy, in 1982 they should have constituted around 8.5% of the participants in a given occupational category. In fact, they constituted 60% of agricultural labourers, 23.2% of dyers, and 25.7% of construction workers.46 It is generally estimated that over half of all migrant workers (registered and unregistered) are engaged in construction work. Israeli figures for registered workers put 48.2% in construction, 17.4% in industry, 16.3% in agriculture and 8.8% in the hotel, catering and commercial sector.47
Before further discussing the predominant forms of employment of Palestinian migrants in the Israeli economy, one subsidiary form is worth mentioning. It has already been noted that the slave market phenomenon is technically illegal and that it invites the most gross and unprotected exploitation of labour. The opportunities that the mechanism offers to employers is taken to its logical extreme by Israeli criminals who hire (unwitting) Arabs to carry out the riskier parts of their trade. Five out of the 50 workers interviewed in Qalqilia in 1984 stated that they have been so duped and had ended up being arrested and beaten. One told of how he was hired as a fruit picker, provided with baskets and a ladder and shown where to work. As the end of the day approached, he was assaulted by an Israeli farmer with a rifle who handed him over to the police. His employers had disappeared and he had no way of proving that he was anything but a thief.48
Migrant workers are employed in enterprises that range in size from one person outfits to large kibbutzim and moshavim, Histadrut-owned factories and municipalities (a handful of migrants work for Palestinian municipalities inside the Green Line and some of them have complained of discrimination). Larger, non-agricultural enterprises are more likely to use registered workers since they have more complex accounting systems and are less subject to seasonal fluctuations in labour demand, but they are clearly no less exploitative of their workers. This is apparent from an analysis of some of the techniques of super-exploitation by employer and state alike.
Having no legal right to be inside the Green Line, unregistered workers clearly have no real rights at all. However, the statutory safeguard of the legal minimum wage (40% of the average wage in early 198749 trade unions and employers’ organisations’,50 are said by Israel to apply to workers with permits. One case uncovered by Shalev has been cited above but, as he notes, such cases are far from exceptional. Palestinian sources maintain that they are the rule.
Taggart cites two cases taken up by the Qalqilia Institute Workers Union where official wage slips revealed that the workers were being paid below the legal minimum wage.51 Arab submissions to the ILO in 1986 and 1987 claimed that migrant workers are paid 50% less than an Israeli worker doing the same job.52 This complaint about discrimination within the same job is a common one that recurs in virtually every interview with Palestinians who work alongside Jews. Al-Bayader al-Siyassi cites one worker who is paid $15 per day while a Jewish worker doing the same job is paid $23 per day.53 The baker workers who waited in the cold for their shift to start said that: ‘the average monthly wage for the Arab workers is 200,000 shekels whilst the salary of the Jewish worker is between 500,000 and 800,000 shekels’.54
In 1986, Arab workers at another workplace (owned by the Dolphin company) said that they were being paid 30 New Shekels per day, half that of Jewish colleagues, but were working much longer hours.55 The point of long work hours is important, since the deprivation of (and discrimination in) overtime pay and increments is a common method of exploitation over and above that deemed respectable in law. Faisal Hindi stated that:
West Bank workers are maintained as daily [ie casual] workers even when they have worked somewhere for ten years. This means sacking is easy and family and seniority increments are not paid.
…Migrant workers only receive the flat rate for overtime while Israeli workers get time and a half or double time. Israeli workers work five hours on a Friday, Palestinians work eight.56
Semyonov and Lewin-Epstein support such Palestinian claims (even without apparently conducting interviews with them). They note a 1986 survey which showed that even in those firms which agreed to be examined:
A comparison of gross and net wages… revealed that in some cases the wages of Israeli workers were 30 per cent higher than the wages of non-citizen Arabs in the same jobs. In the companies surveyed, the gross earnings of Israeli workers were 17 per cent higher on the average, and, because higher taxes are levied on non-citizen Arabs, the net earnings were 25 per cent higher.57
This being the case for registered workers, Taggart’s findings in late 1984 are hardly surprising: unregistered women fruit pickers were earning the equivalent of £1.50 per day, child workers earned £3.50 per day, and adult male labourers got £3.75 per day.58 A 1987 newspaper report noted that workers aged between nine and fourteen years from the village of Husan, employed at Mafubitar [Mevo-Beitar] settlement, were being paid five New Shekels for an eleven hour day.59 Palestinian trade unionists say that it is by no means uncommon for an employer to simply refuse to pay a worker picked up from one of the slave markets, knowing he can do nothing about it.
Taxation and other deductions from the wages of workers in possession of permits constitute a major source of revenue for the Israeli government (and for the Histadrut). Such deductions, which include levies for the Israeli invasion of Lebanon and for ‘security’ expenditure in the occupied territories, generally amount to 30-40% of gross wages,60 but there are cases of net income only reaching 50% of gross earnings.61 As noted above, many migrant workers are kept on as casual labourers, irrespective of their length of service, and thus lose entitlement to benefits such as holiday pay, sick pay, and redundancy money.
The way other benefits are lost is described in the 1987 ILO report as ‘…the joint application of the principle of equality of labour costs and the residence qualification required by Israeli law for payment of old-age, survivors’ , invalidity and unemployment benefit and for child allowance…’62 In other words, migrant workers pay contributions for these benefits because they work in Israel but are themselves denied the benefits because they do not live inside the Green Line and could not do so even if they wished.
Health, safety, and working conditions
Accidents at work are a fact of life for migrant workers who do the dirtiest and least desirable jobs. This situation is exacerbated by common lack of provision of protective clothing, inadequate rest facilities and medical treatment:
At work, we have many accidents – burns, broken bones. If a Palestinian is injured they give him half of what they should… Also our medical care isn’t good. If we get injured, we are treated at West Bank government hospitals, not by Kupat Holim [Israeli national sick fund]. They give us first aid and then transfer us… You can’t say that Alia Government Hospital [in Hebron] is like Hadassah [hospital in Jerusalem]. We don’t even have a qualified doctor.63
Again, the situation of unregistered workers is even worse, as hospitals require information which regulation-dodging employers are loathe to provide. Arab trade unionists see a conspiracy between state, employers and the Israeli legal profession in the refusals to register accidents with the work offices and in the low levels and long delays in the payment of compensation for serious injuries. A few examples suffice to demonstrate employers’ attitudes towards Palestinian employees:
- In 1986, Mohammed Hamidan of Ein Beit al-Ma refugee camp and Sa’ad Sinouber of Yatmah, near Nablus, were working at the Roukah Man biscuit factory, both paying into the social fund and health fund. Yet, when they were injured there, the supervisor refused to either provide them with treatment or take them to hospital. They finally got themselves to the Rafidia Hospital in Nablus but the company administration refused to pay for either treatment or recuperation.64
- Isa’ad Ali Jalaita, a young worker from Jericho, had his thumb severed whilst working in the Israeli-owned Mafroumal aluminium factory near Deir Yassin. That was in July 1986. By August 1987, neither management nor the work office nor the Israeli national insurance office had done anything to help him, despite the seriousness of his incapacity. Indeed, the supervisor had initially refused to take him to hospital, only providing him with first aid. He was shipped from hospital to hospital, eventually being detained in one for five days.65
- Writing in the Morning Star, Taggart cites the cases of one worker who lost a finger on a circular saw and received no compensation, a second who lost a leg which became gangrenous after he was told to patch it up himself, and a third who lost an eye but whose employer still refused to register the accident.66
The dangers of injury during working hours are compounded by the frequent attacks on Palestinian workers by their Jewish counterparts and the ‘security’ forces. Attacks are so commonplace that they barely warrant a mention in either the Hebrew or the Arabic press. At the lower end of the scale is simple harassment but injuries are often serious and deaths are not unknown.
…Once or twice a week, they are stopped by the police, or the civil guard, in the middle of the street. Some are even held for 48 hours for not having a permit. But usually they are searched, rudely interrogated and then set free. At least once or twice a day they have to endure insults from Israelis. They all speak of getting hostile looks at least once every hour.67
A 39 year old resident from Jabalya Refugee Camp in the Gaza Strip was hospitalised at Tel Hashomer Hospital after receiving medium injuries. Two Jewish youths attacked the labourer, Mahmoud Jaber Shahin, and stabbed him in his left shoulder. The incident took place in Petah Tikva, east of Tel Aviv, where Shahin works.68
Three Palestinian labourers were severely beaten recently by three Jewish men who pretended to be Israeli police. The Palestinians were stripped naked and left in an area just outside of Eilat. The Israeli police later arrested the three Jewish men.69
Three men of the Israeli police from Kfar Saba assaulted two Arab workers from the Tulkarm area as they went about their work on a building site in the Israeli municipality of Ra’anana, inside the Green Line. Worker Tayseer Abd al-Majid Mura’aba (28 years old), from the village of Ras Tira, was seriously wounded in the head when he was beaten with a pistol by one of the policemen… The workers also mentioned that the police (later at a police station) would not take their complaints seriously but ignored the two.70
An Arab worker was stabbed in the back with a butcher’s knife while working in the Israeli coastal town of Ashdod, October 19. Two other Gaza residents were also attacked by three Israelis posing as policemen while working in Bat Yam on October 20. Many Arab workers are refraining from going to work in Israel for fear of more attacks against them.71
The body of 21 year old Abdul Fattah Shuqir, who was reported missing two weeks ago, was found July 1. Shuqir, a resident of Zawyeh village near Tulkarm, worked in an Israeli restaurant in Tel Aviv.72
It has already been noted that (according to the Israeli government) only 20% of registered workers are permitted to stay overnight in Israel but that many thousands more do so. Conditions are hardly ideal for those with permits. Thus, Rosenbluth states:
By law, Palestinians must be in their assigned lodgings at night and are not allowed to walk freely in Jewish areas. Even with a sleeping permit, a worker from the West Bank or Gaza caught in a Jewish area after midnight can be arrested or imprisoned.73
The testimony of labourers, registered or unregistered, demonstrates that sleeping accommodation provided by Histadrut companies such as Solel Boneh, moshavim and kibbutzim, are as bad as any ‘cowboy’ employers. The two examples below demonstrate this:
The [Solel Boneh] company hostel was more like a jail. At night they would lock us in. The rooms we slept in were four metres square and we had six workers sleeping in them. There weren’t enough beds for everyone so four would sleep in the beds and two would sleep on the floor, and we would take turns. The blankets were dirty and had holes in them. Sometimes we had mice bigger than cats running around us… Only a few days a week would we have hot water. The food was no good, but they took 10% of our wages just for the food.74
Some of the workers on the moshav sleep in chicken houses, some of us just in the open air. None of the chicken houses have electricity. We cook on fires outside… Some of the houses for the animals have heat and electricity because the animals cost money . We used to say we lived like chickens, but the chickens live better… The labour office don’t see and they don’t come to see. Sometimes, though, the border police come around to see if any workers are sleeping illegally. The moshav [residents] hide us or we run into the fields. Sometimes we get caught and they beat us or take us to jail. If we get taken to jail, the moshav won’t have anyone to pick their crops. That’s the only reason they hide us. One evening when we were talking and joking together, the manager came and said we shouldn’t speak to each other because the noise would attract the army. He brought two people from the moshav to watch us… We get our washing and drinking water from the irrigation pipes. It really is a prison: we can’t leave and our families can’t visit us and we are guarded with guns…75
Because Palestinian migrant workers tend to be treated as casual workers, it is easy for employers to make them redundant. The turnover of workers is high even on the basis of figures used by Israeli apologists which (necessarily) exclude unregistered workers. Statistics quoted in late 1984 maintained that 46% have worked in one place for between one day and one year, 18% have been in one workplace or trade from one to two years, 16% for two to four years, and 20% for four years or more.76 Migrant workers are often sacked just before they would qualify for severance pay. A worker quoted in al-Fajr in 1986 said:
…If the employer is good, when he fires you he’ll give you a piece of paper saying you are released so you can go to the labour office and get compensation. But most of the time you don’t get anything…77
Migrant workers have been summarily dismissed even after periods of 13 years at a workplace.78 The ILO report for 1987 cites a case in which the management of a cardboard box factory in Lod had decided that large scale redundancies were to be made. Half the workforce was Arab and half Jewish. The Jewish workers demanded that the Arabs be fired on the grounds that ‘they were generally considered to be “temporary”.’ Eventually, the Histadrut sided with the management and agreed that there should be equality of treatment according to length of service. However, as the ILO observers noted:
The favourable and equitable outcome of this affair was acknowledged to have been closely linked to the personality and convictions of the employer, thus graphically illustrating how haphazard equality of treatment and the protection of Arab workers from the occupied territories could be in practice.79
As we have seen above, the Histadrut [the Zionist Labour Federation] which owns 25% of Israeli industry and which employs and exploits migrant labour like any other Israeli firm, is also willing to subject Palestinian workers to inhumane living conditions. Its support for police action against unregistered workers has also been mentioned. The Histadrut has a direct financial interest in ensuring that as many migrant workers as possible are unregistered; this and the contempt in which it is held by Palestinians of the West Bank and Gaza must be noted. (The discrimination of the Histadrut against Palestinians living inside the Green Line will not be dealt with here)
Whilst membership of the Histadrut is a voluntary commitment which very few migrant workers wish to accept and which costs approximately 3.5% of gross wages, all workers pay a compulsory levy of 1% of gross wages.80 This is refered to as the ‘organisation contribution’ and is paid directly to the Histadrut, bringing in millions of dollars per year. In return for these deductions, Histadrut is supposed to defend migrant workers. Yet, as Michael Shalev points out:
On the ground, though, local Histadrut officials and workers’ committees at best demonstrate a lack of enthusiasm for the task, and a tendency to deny or to shrug off their responsibilities.
Nevertheless, the problem in the labour movement begins at the top.
The leadership has cynically tied the Histadrut‘s willingness to take its responsibilities seriously to the government’s readiness to offer it a more generous cut from the pay pockets of workers employed through the Employment Service. Insofar as Histadrut leaders raise the issue of labour from the territories in public, it is not to indict the splitting of jobs and workers along nationality lines, but rather to rage against the evils of “unorganised labour”.81
The ‘more generous cut’ which Shalev mentions refers to attempts to persuade the Israeli government to approve a trial year in which the Histadrut would collect wage deductions nominally earmarked for pensions, national insurance and other benefits. These sums currently go into the coffers of the Israeli Labour Ministry.82
An example of the Histadrut finally agreeing that Arab workers should be treated on the same basis as Jewish workers has been cited. However, this contrasts with the day-to-day experience of migrant workers which reflects the discriminatory nature of the Zionist Labour Federation.
Back in 1983, Mordechai Amster, then secretary of the Building Workers Union, made his notorious statement (repeated, in essence, on subsequent occasions) that:
The building workers from the territories will be the first to be fired if the forecasts regarding the dismissal of thousands of building workers become true; they are not inhabitants of Israel and in every country with unemployment the foreign workers are the first to be dismissed.83
Attempts by Palestinian migrant labourers to organise against their employers are frustrated by the Histadrut. Semyonov and Lewin-Epstein are correct when they say that migrant workers are not represented on most Histadrut workers’ committees. However, they are wrong to claim that Arab workers are permitted to organise themselves.84 Only 40 of their 160 unions are legal85 and none are recognised as legal entities inside the Green Line and so cannot even be party to court cases on behalf of migrant workers.
The Histadrut has joined Israeli state attempts to blacken the name of Palestinian unions which have been described as ‘bases for hostile terrorist actions’.86 Union leaders such as Ali Abu Hilal have been depicted as ‘one of the main leaders of the Democratic Front for the Liberation of Palestine… in the West Bank…’ and excuses made for his deportation.87 Attempts to set up workplace committees for migrant workers have found a similar response:
Before I worked in construction, I worked at a factory in Beer Sheba. We had 80 Palestinians and 60 Jewish workers. It was a textile factory. We tried to form a committee for the Palestinian workers. The Histadrut had a representative in the factory but he didn’t do anything for us. So we made this informal committee. The employer fired the head of our committee and told us, ‘if anyone wants to follow him, he can’. The work office took his work ID so he couldn’t work. The rest of us were scared because we had to work. So we lost our committee.88
Unions, resistance and uprising
Migrant labourers face gross economic exploitation maintained by structural discrimination and violence, and by enforced separation from home and family. This exploitation is underpinned by their oppression as part of the Palestinian nation. Any expression of Palestinian identity is deemed as troublemaking and is repudiated as unwarranted. Their identity as Palestinian Arabs, according to the ideology of Zionism, enables the treatment they receive; any organisation along such lines is strictly prohibited, for it threatens not only the super profits of their employers but also the fiction around which the Zionist entity is built.
Capital seeks to exploit the proletariat as a class whilst publicly denying the existence of class relations and propounding concepts of individualism and social mobility. Post-1967 Zionism, the Jewish labour movement being largely co-opted and capitalist relations of production thus ensured, has also sought to establish a form of super exploitation by recruiting a Palestinian migrant labour force which it has tried to atomise by repressing all forms of self-expression and denying all national rights. However, double exploitation brings with it double jeopardy, for the migrant worker has national grievances as well as class grievances. An important manifestation of the uprising which exploded in December 1987 has been the militancy of the migrant workers of the West Bank and Gaza Strip.
The Progressive Workers Bloc, the Palestine Communist Party wing of the trade union movement and, until the last few years, indisputably the leading faction, has long recognised the need to work with migrant labourers. In the early days, there were those who said workers who crossed the Green Line for jobs were collaborators but the Communist Party had a more sophisticated analysis:
From the first day of the occupation, we have defended these workers because we have understood that they need to eat… Israel thought that migration would help annexation by acclimatising and influencing the workers. This has not happened. These workers have retained their Arabism and it is strengthened by the discrimination that they face.89
In 1984, the Progressive Workers Bloc claimed 25 committees in workplaces inside the Green Line and was attempting to set up committees of migrant workers in villages and refugee camps. Since 1979, the Workers Unity Bloc (sympathetic to the DFLP) has also been involved in such organisation. Union membership offers migrant workers access to information, such as the pamphlet explaining the wage, safety and benefit rights, published by a union in Qalqilia in 1987.90 The union also offers legal advice, access to a union clinic and limited financial support in times of hardship.
Fundamentally, unionisation has often been a way of surviving the rigours of migrant work, more like a Friendly Society than a powerful industrial weapon. This said, despite the recent entry of most migrant workers into wage labour, contemporary Palestinian trade unionism has deep and militant roots. These come not only from the communist tradition but also from the foundation of the movement in the 1920s and from the six month General Strike of the 1936-39 uprising. Despite immense problems, migrant workers have taken industrial action over workplace grievances on a number of occasions. Such action has ranged from small-scale sabotage and job-hopping to strike action.
Al-Tali’a, 26 June 1986, reported that workers in a factory at Talpiot, near Jerusalem, organised a committee and went on strike to fight for higher wages and to oppose the exploitative practices of the employer and the middlemen. The same article reported that workers at the Matsadeh Restaurant in Arad had formed a committee to oppose the sacking of one of their number whose offence was to be ill for one day.
Similar action was being taken by workers at the Tsel-Harim Restaurant over the suspension of four colleagues. One week earlier, the paper noted that the management of the Of-Yerushalayim abbatoir in Bein Shemesh was threatening to call the border guards and to sack a hundred workers who were demanding a reduction in their ten hour working day.91 In 1985, 35 workers at the Berman Bakery in Jerusalem walked out.92 Taggart cites a case of 25 sacked sewing workers being re-employed when they threatened to occupy a workshop.93
Although tens of thousands of families in the West Bank and Gaza Strip may depend on money coming in as wages from Israeli employers, the employers are also dependent on the workers. Israel’s dependence has increased as Israeli Jews grow less accustomed to doing ‘Arab work’ . This has been noticed over a number of years. A piece in Ha’aretz in 1981 made the point:
Who would have dreamt in those far-away days before 1967, that the Jewish state founded to provide employment for Jewish labour would be almost paralysed on Muslim holiday? We are at the height of the ‘Feast of the Sacrifice’ at the moment, when the one month fast of Ramadan comes to an end… During the thirty days of the Ramadan fast, the output of Muslim workers falls to zero by midday, and every Jewish manager and foreman in every building site, factory and shop knows this. The Jewish employers have learned from years of experience and now take their holidays during Ramadan… Even the garbage collection becomes a problem, and special payments have to be made to workers, since the Jerusalem municipality knows that most of its employees in the sanitation department, apart from the drivers and managers, are Arabs.94
In the same month, Ma’ariv mentioned some extreme cases:
The man in the petrol station was behaving very oddly. He was pointing the petrol pipe at my car window, and started to clean it with a strong stream of gasoline. He looked embarrassed. “Ahmed did not turn up today. It’s his feast day”, he told me with a trembling voice. “I am the owner of the petrol station. This is the first time I have to do this”.
…A company director was arrested after stabbing his wife with a kitchen knife. “The house was filthy and we had been living on bread and water for three days”, he explained. A shocked neighbour told reporters: “They used to be so happy. It’s just that Fatima did not turn up for a few days. It was her feast day”.95
In 1982, Israeli tanks rolled into Lebanon and migrant workers continued to roll into work. Although they knew that in many cases they were standing in for Israeli reservists, there was neither the organisation nor the confidence to stage mass stay-aways. But both organisation and confidence were present in December 1987 when the killing of five migrant workers by an Israeli hit-and-run driver sparked the uprising. Alongside the mass demonstrations, the stone-throwing, the burning barricades [and the sudden recognition by British politicians that there is a Palestinian people], came the quiet but effective strike of migrant workers. It was weeks before the international press caught on to the significance and impact of the stay-away but the Israeli press was quicker off the mark. On 18 December 1987, Ha’aretz interviewed the Israeli owner of orange groves in Kfar Hess:
The harvest is not yet at its height, which will be at the end of January. Still, there can be no doubt that the absence of the Arab workers messes up the job in hand. Today I heard that Tnuva Export in southern Israel did not pack anything at all, as the workers had not picked any fruit.
…No Jew has been picking fruit since 1967. In our moshav, you are not going to find a single person who would harvest his own crop. There is no such thing. The rest of the agricultural jobs too are all done by Arabs.96
One month later, panic was setting in. Hadashot reported that permits had been issued for 550 harvest workers to be brought in from southern Lebanon. Citrus farmers were reported to be 40% behind schedule and fruit was rotting on the trees. Yediot Ahronot noted that heaps of rubbish were filling the streets of Tel Aviv. Why? Because less than 30% of West Bank workers and none from Gaza had turned up for work. Responding to blasé talk about finding workers from elsewhere to do Israel’s dirty work, the same paper poured on the scorn:
In construction, 40 per cent of all workers come from the territories. If they stop coming, construction, especially in the private housing sector, will come to a stand-still. Anyone believing that we can import 50,000 foreign building workers within a reasonably short time is deluding himself… Where else could we find 17,000 share croppers today? The Jewish sector flees from agricultural work…
In industry the large firms say they would be unaffected but the smaller ones are worried. The owner of a textile firm tells me: ‘A quarter of my workers come from refugee camps near Nablus. There is no substitute for them in Israel, not among Jews or Arabs…’
Services are a sensitive matter. 20,000 workers from the territories serve the Israelis. ‘…Somebody proposed to import workers from Portugal. For what jobs? At what price? Are they going to work for 12 or at most 15 dollars a day in a small restaurant kitchen? Workers are not going to come here from any European country. Perhaps from Thailand, but that is far away.97
And how much does the absence of migrant workers actually cost the Israeli economy? In January 1988, the marketing manager of the agricultural marketing board, AGREXCO, stated that $500,000 had been lost in three weeks and that customers such as Marks and Spencer, Sainsbury, and Safeway were ‘very upset’.98 A few days later, The Independent quoted an Israeli army report as estimating the cost of work stoppages since the beginning of the uprising at $50 million in lost sales and production. Over 500 permits had been issued to workers from southern Europe to compensate for the absence of Arab labour. Jerusalem building site managers were failing to attract workers, despite doubling wage levels.99 The impact on tourism will not be known for months.
There is little point in pretending that the Palestinian working class has suddenly arisen from its slumber or that the events of late 1987 have suddenly transformed it from a class in itself into a class for itself.
Since 1967, Palestinian migrant workers have understood their double exploitation, resenting it and wanting to be in a position to fight it. The uprising has allowed them to do so because it has offered them something which they have never had before, strategic depth. The uprising has embraced the entire community of the occupied territories (and Palestinians inside the Green Line). Its fury and its all-embracing nature have left little opportunity for wavering. With schoolchildren seizing the streets and old people demonstrating outside mosques, it has been socially impossible for workers to cross the Green Line, whatever the imperatives of feeding their families. The imposition of curfews by the Israeli army and the burning of buses by the shebab has reinforced this impossibility and that is precisely what has been needed for the last two decades.
Working in enemy territory, migrants are terribly exposed to the wrath of employers and to the fear of losing work and not being able to provide for the family. No amount of distaste at working for the Zionist economy and no amount of private or rhetorical anger at Zionist barbarity in Lebanon has been powerful enough to persuade tens of thousands of workers to put the precarious health of their families on the line. The uprising, however, has provided a guarantee that there is a fate worse than unemployment – isolation from a community paying for its discontent with blood.
Strike action is often not only determined at the national level but workers spontaneously refuse to accept jobs left vacant by compatriots from villages on which travel bans have been imposed.100 This is not to downgrade the day-to-day fortitude of the migrant workers or to dispute their affiliation to the aspirations of the Palestinian people as a whole; rather it is to face up to the reality that neither patriotic words nor bombs on buses can achieve what the unanimous support of a self-organised community can.
As to the future, both the Zionist establishment and the Palestinian working class will learn from the uprising, but one side of weakness it had not appreciated and the other side of strength it had never before trusted.
- UNCTAD, Selected Statistical Tables on the Economy of the Occupied Palestinian Territories (West Bank and Gaza Strip), Geneva, July 1986, p 16. ↩
- Ibid, p 15. ↩
- Al-Bayader al-Siyassi (English language supplement), 20.11.87. ↩
- Moshe Semyonov and Noah Lewin-Epstein, Hewers of Wood and Drawers of Water: Noncitizen Arabs in the Israeli Labor Market, ILR Press, Cornell University, USA, 1987, pp 11-13. ↩
- Report to the Director: Appendix III, Report on the Situation of Workers of the Occupied Arab Territories, International Labour Organisation (ILO), 1987, para. 23. ↩
- Paul Harper, Labouring Under Oppression: Poles and Palestinians, CAABU, London, p 4. ↩
- Ibid, p 3. ↩
- Semyonov and Lewin-Epstein, op cit., p 10. ↩
- Antoine Mansour, Palestine: une économie de résistance en Cisjordanie et à Gaza, Paris, 1983, quoted in The Economic Destruction of the Occupied Territories, PLO, London, 1986. ↩
- Al-Fajr (English), 22.2.85, Jerusalem. ↩
- Najouah Makhoul, ‘Modifications dans la structure de l’emploi des arabes en Israel’, Perspectives Judéo-Arabes, October-December 1985, Paris. ↩
- Al-Bayader al-Siyassi, op cit. ↩
- UNCTAD, op cit., p 19. ↩
- Al-Fajr (English), 22.2.85, op cit. ↩
- Sarah Graham-Brown, Education, Repression, Liberation: Palestinians, WUS (UK), London, 1984, p 68. ↩
- UNRWA, ‘Economic squeeze hits refugees in West Bank, Gaza’, Palestine Refugees Today, no. 116, 1987. ↩
- Al-Fajr (English), 2.5.86. ↩
- UNRWA, op cit. ↩
- Tanmiya, August 1986, Welfare Association, Geneva. ↩
- Al-Fajr (English) 13.6.86. ↩
- Al-Bayader al-Siyassi, op cit. ↩
- Al-Awdah Weekly, ‘Where to go this summer’, 16.6.85, Jerusalem. ↩
- ILO 1987, op cit., Annex 3, p 60. ↩
- Middle East International, ‘Letter from Gaza’, 27.6.87, London. ↩
- Al-Tali’a, 21.11.85, Jerusalem. ↩
- Jewish Chronicle, 12.7.85, London. ↩
- Simon Taggart, Workers in Struggle: Palestinian trade unions in the occupied West Bank, Editpride, 1985, p 57. ↩
- Al-Tali’a, 14.11.85. ↩
- Semyonov and Lewin-Epstein, op cit, p 13. ↩
- Jerusalem Post, 3.10.84, ↩
- Al-Tali’a, 14.11.85. ↩
- Semyonov and Lewin-Epstein, op cit, p 12. ↩
- Al-Tali’a, 21.11.85. ↩
- Taggart, op cit., p 65. ↩
- Michael Shalev, ‘Winking an Eye at Cheap Arab Labour’, Jerusalem Post International Edition, week ending 18.1.86. ↩
- Semyonov and Lewin-Epstein, op cit., p 12. ↩
- Al-Tali’a, 15.10.87. ↩
- Middle East International, op cit. ↩
- International Labour Organisation (ILO), Report to the Director: Appendix III, Report on the Situation of Workers of the Occupied Arab Territories, 1986, Annex 3, p 65. ↩
- Ibid, para. 18. ↩
- ILO 1987, op cit., para 24. ↩
- Personal communication, 1987. ↩
- Semyonov and Lewin-Epstein, op cit., pp 22-23 (table). ↩
- Ibid. ↩
- Ibid, p 41. ↩
- Ibid, p 29 (table). ↩
- Al-Fajr (English), 22.2.85, See also ILO 1987, op cit., para. 21. ↩
- Taggart, op cit., p 66. ↩
- ILO 1987, op cit., para. 37.) and ‘accordance with the rates laid down by the collective agreements with the relevant [Israeli ↩
- Ibid, Annex 3, p 59. ↩
- Taggart, op cit., p 60. ↩
- ILO 1987, op cit., Annex 2, p 43. ↩
- Al-Bayader al-Siyassi, op cit. ↩
- Al-Tali’a, 21.11.85. ↩
- Al-Tali’a, 19.6.86. ↩
- Taggart, op cit., p 60. ↩
- Semyonov and Lewin-Epstein, op cit., p 88. ↩
- Taggart, op cit., p 15. ↩
- Al-Tali’a, 1.10.87. ↩
- Taggart, op cit., p 60. ↩
- Al-Tali’a, 14.11.85. ↩
- ILO 1987, op cit., para. 38. ↩
- Al-Fajr (English), 2.5.86. ↩
- Al-Tali’a, 19.6.86. ↩
- Al-Tali’a, 13.8.87. ↩
- Morning Star, London, 7.11.84. ↩
- Al-Fajr (English), 5.10.84. ↩
- Al-Fajr (English), 9.5.86. ↩
- Al-Fajr (English), 10.10.86. ↩
- Al-Tali’a, 20.8.87. ↩
- Al-Fajr (English), 24.10.86. ↩
- Al-Fajr (English), 11.7.86. ↩
- International Labour Reports, no. 24, Barnsley (Britain), November-December 1987. ↩
- Ibid. ↩
- Al-Fajr (English), 2.5.86. ↩
- Al-Fajr (English), 22.2.85. See also ILO 1987, op cit., para. 21. ↩
- Al-Fajr (English), 2.5.86. ↩
- Al-Fajr (English), 26.4.85. ↩
- ILO 1987, op cit., para. 36. ↩
- Ibid, para. 44. ↩
- Shalev, op cit. ↩
- International Labour Reports, op cit. ↩
- Ha’aretz, 18.11.83. ↩
- Semyonov and Lewin-Epstein, op cit., p 104. ↩
- ILO 1987, op cit., para. 49. ↩
- International Labour Reports, op cit. ↩
- Histadrut Executive Committee reply to letter from British trade unions. ↩
- Al-Fajr (English), 2.5.86. ↩
- Taggart, op cit, p 58. ↩
- One-off publication of Qalqilia Union of Municipal and Public Institute workers on subject of migrant workers’ rights, 1987. ↩
- Al-Tali’a, 19.6.86. ↩
- Al-Tali’a, 21.11.85 and Kol Ha’ir, 8.11.85 (translated in Israeli Mirror, London.) ↩
- Taggart, op cit., p 39. ↩
- Ha’aretz, 2.8.81, quoted in Harper, op cit., pp 4-5. ↩
- Ma’ariv, 4.8.81, quoted in Harper, op cit., pp 5-6. ↩
- Ha’aretz, 18.12.87, translated in Israeli Mirror, op cit., 24.12.87. ↩
- Yediot Ahronot, 15.1.88, translated in Israeli Mirror, op cit., 16.1.88. ↩
- Financial Times, London, 28.1.88. ↩
- The Independent, London, 30.1.88. ↩
- Intifadah wa al-Ard, one-off publication of Dar al-Sharara, West Jerusalem, March 1988. ↩