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Shir Hever: Israeli economy now depends on pool of cheap non-Palestinian workers

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PAUL JAY, SENIOR EDITOR, TRNN: Welcome to The Real News Network. I’m Paul Jay in Washington. In Israel two weeks ago, there was a protest, Jewish-Israeli citizens calling for the deportation or ouster of African and Filipino migrant workers living in their neighborhood. The issue of migrant labor is a hot one in Israel. And joining us now to talk about the perhaps 200,000 migrant workers in Israel is Shir Hever. Shir is a researcher for the joint Palestinian-Israeli organization the Alternative Information Center. He’s the author of The Political Economy of Israel’s Occupation. He’s now working on his PhD in Germany. Thanks for joining us, Shir.


JAY: Let’s start with some basic facts about migrant workers in Israel. Go ahead.

HEVER: Well, I think the most important thing is to understand the historical process that led Israel to become one of the highest per capita importers of migrant workers in the world. Israel is not as wealthy on per capita terms compared to countries like Germany, the Netherlands, or the United States, but it has a very high proportion of labor immigrants because of the occupation, the Israeli occupation of the West Bank and Gaza Strip. Over the first 30-years of occupation or so, the cheap labor of Palestinian workers coming from the West Bank and Gaza to work for Israeli employers completely transformed the Israeli construction sector and agricultural sector. These two sectors came to rely on this cheap Palestinian labor, the fact that they could just pick up Palestinian workers in the morning, pay them for one day of labor, wages that were far below the Israeli minimum wage, and get as many workers as they wanted, basically, to do the job quickly. These workers would later then have to return to their homes at the end of the work day in the West Bank or in Gaza, even if it meant for these workers that they had to spend four hours a day just traveling to the workplace and back.

JAY: Going through checkpoints each time, I assume.

HEVER: Yeah, yeah, waiting at the checkpoint, because usually what would happen is that they would form a very long queue at the checkpoint that could take three hours or more, just to wait in that queue. And if they didn’t want to be late for work, they had to start waiting at the checkpoint at 4 a.m. in the morning, even earlier.

JAY: How much would a daily average wage be for a Palestinian worker like that?

HEVER: Well, over the years, we’re talking about decades of Palestinians working for Israeli employers. So, over the years, the wages of course changed. On average, the more recent wages would be comparable to between $400 and $500 a month for these workers. But the wages were about one half of the minimum wage in Israel. But they are far above the average wages in the West Bank and Gaza. So for these Palestinians who were able to get this job, it was a very important source of income, and it actually increased, in the first years of occupation, the overall income of the Palestinian population under Israel’s control.

JAY: This started to change to immigrant, migrant workers in the Philippines, from Africa. So why the change? And how much has it changed?

HEVER: Well, the change came in the ’90s. And in the early ’90s, the Israeli government decided to adopt a new policy known as the policy of separation, which is that Israel will no longer strive to extend its control into the occupied territories as much as possible, but would entrench its control over the areas that have already become Judified, or already populated by Jews, by trying to segregate the Palestinian population and separate from it. And from 1991, during the first Gulf War, Israel implemented the first blanket closure on the Palestinian territories, and that meant that Palestinians were just not able to enter Israel. No permit was sufficient for them to enter Israel in order to find employment. All of a sudden they were completely stranded. And what happened, especially later into the ’90s, during the Oslo years, especially in ’94 to ’96, when Israel used closures more and more frequently for extended periods of time, that the Israeli construction sector and the Israeli agricultural sector that have become so dependent on this cheap source of labor came into a crisis. Now, these sectors have neglected investments in capital and investments in machinery, because it was much cheaper just to use Palestinian workers. So, for example, the whole prefabrication industry in Israel was abandoned. And while prefabrication of buildings is still widely used in modern countries, in Israel it is just not used, because prefabrication requires more investment in machinery and less investment in labor. Labor is cheaper, so they just didn’t use it.

JAY: So this is kind of not people’s picture of Israel. It’s always thought of as such a high-tech economy, not a labor-intensive economy.

HEVER: That’s because this is the image that Israel is trying to project by putting the focus more on Israel’s high-tech sector. But the high-tech sector in Israel is not the majority of the economy, and most Israeli employees are not employed in the high-tech sector. The other sectors in Israel, the industry sector, the agricultural sector, the service sector, the construction sector, these sectors are actually much less developed than the average in the developed world, in, for example, the OECD countries.

JAY: So the transition takes place away from cheap Palestinian labor to imported migrant workers from Africa, from Philippines, other countries. How many are there, and what are the conditions of life for them?

HEVER: This transition came very quickly, because the lobby of the construction companies and the agricultural companies came to the government in the ’90s and said, we need these cheap workers and we need a solution immediately. So the government gave them permits to import labor immigrants to replace the Palestinian workers that were no longer able to come to work. And this was thought of as a very temporary kind of ad hoc solution. But it immediately created a very complex system. And the system was that employers in Israel got a permit for a certain number of workers. They didn’t get permits for specific names but for bringing in a certain number, let’s say 100 workers. And they would bring in workers with the aid of various person power companies that would recruit these workers from the Far East or from Africa–mainly non-Muslim and non-Arab countries, because those migrants were not welcome in Israel. Now, when these workers came and started to work for their employers, they would have to pay out of their own salary the cost of the plane ticket to come to Israel, and a commission, a very high commission they had to pay to the company that brought them to Israel. So they had to pay a lot of money and to work for many months before they started to see any kind of profit that they could send back to their families at home, which was the original reason for them coming to work in Israel. And when they started making that profit, by then they would also start to learn a thing or two about their rights, about Israeli law. Maybe they would hear that there are unions out there that might help them, various human rights organizations and worker rights organizations [incompr.] certain things their employers are not allowed to do [incompr.] them. As soon as they learn about this, the employers would just fire them, would just fire them immediately and bring new ones, because like I said, the employer have a list–have just a number of permits, and they can easily replace the people working under these permits.

JAY: So what happens if people there are fired? I mean, I understand of the 250,000 or so migrant workers, I think you’ve mentioned only about 60,000 are actually legal. So people get fired, and they get into kind of an illegal limbo and face possible deportation.

HEVER: Exactly. I mean, these people find themselves in Israel in a situation where they haven’t actually made any money yet, or very little; now they’re expected to just leave and go back to their countries without actually doing what they came in to do, which is to work and earn some money. And some of them are still paying their debts to these companies that brought them over, still paying their commission.

JAY: Now, what happens when they have families, the people get–women get pregnant and they have kids, and there’s a growing population, and then you see protests like the one we reported on a few weeks ago, where they’re calling for the expulsion of Africans and Filipinos? Start with what are the rights of women and of children born in Israel.

HEVER: The numbers indeed started to grow very fast. The labor migrants don’t have very clear rights. They do have some minimum rights as workers, only if they’re employed. But there is a system in which the employers were allowed to take the passport from the workers and basically keep the passport to ensure that the worker remains loyal to them and doesn’t try to run away. And that’s pretty much akin to slavery. There was an appeal to the Israeli high court, and this policy was changed, but then the Israeli Parliament actually passed a law to make it legal again for employers to hold on to the passports of these labor immigrants, to make it impossible for them to escape. Of course, it doesn’t make it impossible for them to become illegals, to escape and become illegals, but if they are caught, they’re going to spend a long time in prison and they’re going to be deported.

JAY: And what happens to migrant workers’ children?

HEVER: Well, the children do not become citizens of Israel, and they don’t really have any rights. What happens is that these children don’t have access to medical insurance and to basic education. And an interesting development happened when the Tel Aviv municipality decided that they just cannot have slums of these children who have absolutely no services applied to them. They started to provide certain services to these children, very basic health care, very basic education, you know, just to try to prevent Tel Aviv from becoming a Third World city. But, of course, the municipality has not the resources nor the willingness to really address the problem. And compared to other OECD countries, Israel has the worst level of health benefits to the labor immigrants, and also extremely bad record on education services [incompr.]

JAY: Now, my understanding is there’s some discussion or there already is a measure to deport migrant women workers who get pregnant.

HEVER: Yes. If a migrant worker woman gets pregnant and this information reaches the Israeli authorities, they are authorized to deport her immediately or within a very short time. This decision has also been challenged, and there is a struggle about it by human rights groups, which are trying to, of course, make such practices illegal and to protect the rights of the mother and the child. There is a very strong scandal and debate within Israel because of the various methods that the government is using to control the immigrant population. For example, a special unit was set of inspectors that roam the streets, especially in areas like south Tel Aviv, where a lot of migrant workers live. And these inspectors approach anyone who has dark skin or perhaps a foreign accent and they ask for papers. And if that person cannot provide the right papers, they will be arrested on the spot. This practice was so deplorable in the eyes of many human rights activists that they have formed kind of volunteer groups of people on bicycle who would follow these inspectors around and try to warn the migrants to take shelter and to escape them, so that they will not be arrested.

JAY: Thanks very much for joining us, Shir.

HEVER: Thank you very much, Paul.

JAY: And thank you for joining us on The Real News Network.

End of Transcript

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