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Palestinian employment: The phantom workers of Israel

An estimated 30,000 Palestinian laborers work in Israel without permits, in predominantly labor intensives jobs. Pay is poor, social rights are virtually nonexistent, and conditions in the workplace are often hazardous. A group of Palestinian workers tell their story from a construction site in Petah Tikva.

By Alon Aviram

“This place is a luxury penthouse” said Faisal, 26, a builder from Hebron, as he looked out across the lit city-scape of Petah Tikva. Industrial waste was strewn across the floor, tools were propped up against walls and dust hung in the air on the tenth floor of the construction site. “ We’ve stayed in so many penthouses, you wouldn’t believe it!” He said grinning.

The shell of a building, in which Faisal stood, is a workplace as well as a temporary home for him and the five other young men in the room. They’ve lived this life on countless construction sites across the country. The lack of a kettle didn’t diminish their ability to be hospitable. A makeshift immersion heater was placed in a bucket, bringing water to the boil. Coffee was served, the men spoke, and a shisha pipe was passed around. There isn’t much else to do in the evenings in this hazardous, claustrophobic and male dominated environment. Similarly to the other estimated 30,000 Palestinian workers without work permits in Israel, these laborers are confined to building sites day and night for fear of being arrested.

Workers use an immersion heater to boil water. (2011)
(photo: Ron Amir)

“Every two weeks or so the police come and detain us. They take us to the checkpoint and send us back into the West Bank. It’s their way of telling us whose boss. But they know we’ll just make our way back in,” said Faisal. Israeli NGO Kav LaOved reports that when workers are apprehended, they are usually transported back into the West Bank. But workers can also be indicted. Sentences usually include three months in jail and a police preclusion for three years, barring them from entering and working in Israel lawfully. Basem has had numerous run-ins with the police for working without a permit, but he spoke of how in his experience, no contractor had been penalized for employing illegal workers. He said that this was partly as a result of workers not naming their employers out of fear of being blacklisted.

Israeli photographer, Ron Amir, has a long and close relationship with this particular group of workers. He initially met them while documenting the lives of illegal workers for an exhibition, and subsequently became a friend. Ron described how Palestinian construction workers usually find employment through a long chain of middlemen. Workers are initially hired by a subcontractor from their own village, who is then recruited by a series of other contractors within Israel. Ron claimed that this structure is geared towards obscuring the complicity of Israeli firms in employing illegal workers. This in turn diminishes the prospect of the general contractor being held legally accountable. As Kav LaOved reports, the incentive for employing a Palestinian without a work permit is high. The cost of employing a Palestinian worker with a permit is about 70% higher than employing one without a permit (210 versus 124 shekels respectively).

(Photo: Ron Amir)

Basem, 25, is from Ramallah, 23 miles away. Yet it takes him at least a day to reach Petah Tikva. “To get here, I have to travel to the south of the West Bank, near Hebron, cross over by foot through the countryside, and then make my way up carefully in a minivan with some other workers to wherever the contractor wants us.” Faisal only lives one hour drive away, but the difficulty of travelling without a work permit means that “I’m only home to see my family for one or two months of the year,” he said.

Israeli labor laws states that every worker in Israel is entitled to the full range of social rights regardless of whether or not they have a permit. Despite this, primary research by NGOs such as Kav LaOved and Gisha suggest that Israeli employers systematically abuse the rights of Palestinian and immigrant workers, particularly those without permits.

Basem didn’t seem phased by the dangers in his line of work. He spoke of a 22 year old Palestinian worker who died this past November after falling off a construction site in Netanya. No charges have as of yet, been lodged against the contractor of the dead worker. Suheib Zayud, 19, fell from a construction site in 2011, he remains in a coma. His contractor denied that he had ever employed Suheib. As a result, the worker’s family received no financial compensation, and have been burdened with all the medical expenses. This case, as well as others before it, suggest that the contractor of the fatally injured worker in Netanya, is unlikely to face legal ramifications.

The work conditions of illegal workers are often substandard, with legally required on-site security and safety conditions systematically neglected. As Kav LaOved reports, in past cases of work-related accidents involving illegal workers, employers have denied any connection to the employee. The lack of a permit and official documentation mean that the employee is unlikely to be able to prove their eligibility for compensation from the National Insurance Institute. A lack of official documentation, and workers commonly receiving cash in hand from subcontractors, makes employees more susceptible to exploitation, and increases the difficulty of proving a violation of rights in labor courts.

(Photo: Ron Amir)

At the end of 2011, a total of 27,000 Palestinians were legally working in Israel, predominantly in construction and agriculture.  According to a publication issued by the Association of Builders in Israel in 2011, the sector needs 20,000 more workers. Numerous Israeli contractors have reported that they are consistently short of construction workers.

There appears to be a discrepancy between the number of permits issued for Palestinian workers and the demand of Israeli employers’. When questioned, the men in the room in Petah Tikva claimed that they were not eligible for permits because they were too young. In the past, legal work for Palestinians in Israel was readily available. One of the many conditions currently required of Palestinians in order to legally obtain a permit, is that they must be a married father and over the age of 35. Israeli security agencies argue that young men without a family represent a greater potential threat to the state.

Yet somehow, the sophisticated Israeli security complex fails to stop many workers without permits coming into Israel. Tens of thousands of Palestinian laborers currently work illegally in Israel. They live and work in dangerous conditions and are often exploited by their employers. They earn less than their already poorly paid peers with permits, making them a source of cheap and highly profitable labor for Israeli markets. Basem made his intentions clear. “I’m done with this life. As soon as I’ve sent enough money back to my family, and saved a few thousand shekels for myself, I’m going to go back to my village. I’ll get married, and I’ll have some kids.”

(The names in this article have been changed in order to conceal identities)

Related:
The Wall, 10 years on / part 8: A working class under siege 

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  • COMMENTS

    1. The Trespasser

      Palestinians should’ve known better when they started exploding Israelis.

      It is not wise to bite a feeding hand.

      Reply to Comment
      • Mandelbaum

        Israelis should have known better that if they occupy other peoples land they could explode

        Reply to Comment
        • The Trespasser

          Every person is free to choose whether wage war or earn wages.
          Yet only stupid can hope to do both with the same neighbor.

          Anyway, they have nothing to worry about – surely their future state will be able to provide jobs for every it’s citizens. It will be fun watching it.

          By the way, do you know why Kuwait expelled some 450000 Palestinians after the Gulf War?

          http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Palestinian_expulsion_from_Kuwait

          I’ll repeat for the brightest – don’t bite the hand which feeds.

          Reply to Comment
          • Isn’t collective punishment so satisfying, so noble, so uplifting?

            Reply to Comment
          • Kolumn9

            I don’t know. Ask everyone else that uses it.

            Reply to Comment
          • The Trespasser

            It is the only effective punishment (but it’s rather call it a way of dealing with those unwilling to cooperate), so all that pseudo-moral considerations should only be applied on the circumstances of the event.

            For instance China occupying an independent state of Tibet and collectively punishing for resistance from a moral point of view is quite incomparable to the same collective punishment coming as response to the support of invading army.

            Reply to Comment
        • rsgengland

          I have worked on construction sites in South Africa, Israel and England, and the same situation exists in all of them.
          The construction industry throughout the world operates this way.
          It gives workers the oportunity to earn a living,and it gives employers the ability to operate withouy all the costly financial rules.
          If the construction industry operated by the book, China and South East Asia would NOT have been able to develop so fast.
          And when Africa gets going on its rapid progress, the same will happen there.
          This situation has been going on for centuries, and it will continue, despite the best efforts of reformers around the world.

          Reply to Comment
    2. For anyone who is interested in reading more on this, Suad Amiry’s book ‘Nothing to Lose but Your Life: An 18-Hour Journey with Murad’ is a sobering (but quite comically written) account of life as an illegal worker in Petah Tikvah. Amiry disguised herself as a man in order to accompany the workers in. She has guts by the bucketful as well as a sense of humour that rarely leaves her.

      Reply to Comment
    3. aristeides

      Sayed Kashua’s column today relates to this, too.

      Reply to Comment
    4. On the Israeli State’s on terms, these employers should be seen as committing crimes against the security of Israel. The Wall exists to keep Bank residents out; that Israelis employ them illegally in Israel proper should be seen as a danger to national security. Yet the resolve Israel exhibits through the IDF in the Bank is absent here.

      Hypocrisy for the good of business.

      These transit laborers, having relatives in the Bank, fear not only their own arrest but sanctioned family at home, if discovered. The IDF is ubiquitous and capricious, at least from their perspective. Fear of self and family makes them cheap labor indeed.

      Reply to Comment
      • The Trespasser

        “These transit laborers, having relatives in the Bank, fear not only their own arrest but sanctioned family at home, if discovered. The IDF is ubiquitous and capricious, at least from their perspective. Fear of self and family makes them cheap labor indeed.”

        Nonsense.

        Reply to Comment
        • sh

          Not at all nonsense. It’s much worse than what has been explained here.

          “et somehow, the sophisticated Israeli security complex fails to stop many workers without permits coming into Israel. ”

          The security apparatus is not interested in stopping workers coming in because money overrules all other considerations and I’m sure there are rewards in turning a blind eye. Especially when they know full well that a vast majority of Palestinians want to live and be able to feed their families, not to die killing a Jew. And what makes Palestinians take the risk is that earning money, no matter how little, is better than earning none.

          Reply to Comment
          • The Trespasser

            Nonsense from the first to the last word. And your little nasty lies are not making it any less of a nonsense.

            >”sanctioned family at home, if discovered.”

            Family members of illegal workers are never sanctioned.

            >”The IDF is ubiquitous and capricious, at least from their perspective.” – IDF never runs after illegal workers inside Israel, police does.

            >”Fear of self and family makes them cheap labor indeed.” – $1000 per month is not cheap by any Arab’s country standard.
            ——————-
            And now to lies…

            >”It’s much worse than what has been explained here.”

            What is worse exactly?
            The fact that they have to bribe the police? Or that they have to sexually satisfy police officers when caught working? Or that Palestinian workers have their left kidney removed (to cover state expenses) after 3 incidents?

            Much worse it would be if IDF seals off Israel completely.

            >”The security apparatus is not interested in stopping workers coming in because money overrules all other considerations”

            Money? What money? The money which state does not receive in form of taxes?
            You have no idea of what you are talking about.

            Besides, there is about 30000 legal Palestinian workers (compared to almost 500 000 before the Intifadas – good job, Arafat) while there is only few hundreds of illegal ones.

            Their numbers are too insignificant to actually impact anything on a state level.

            >”I’m sure there are rewards in turning a blind eye.”

            There is one definite reward – some more Palestinians have work.

            >”Especially when they know full well that a vast majority of Palestinians want to live”

            Like pretty much ever other live beings including earthworms, hens, sheep and even Jews. So what?

            >”and be able to feed their families, not to die killing a Jew.”

            But also they won’t prevent others, who indeed die to kill a Jew, from doing so.

            “Accomplice to murder”? Is it the term?

            >”And what makes Palestinians take the risk is that earning money, no matter how little, is better than earning none.”

            And now that’s a grand finale lie.

            1 – Palestinians are taking no risks whatsoever while working in Israel.
            2 – Their wages are not little by any standard
            3 – Don’t bite the hand that feeds you.

            Most jobs that Palestinians have had in Israel after 2 Intifadas are taken by Chinese, Philippians, Ukrainians, Sudanese, Eritrean, Ethiopian and some other migrants.

            Simply put – very little jobs left.
            Now, should Israeli employee fire Chinese workers to hire Palestinians?
            I seriously doubt that.

            Reply to Comment
          • sh

            “1 – Palestinians are taking no risks whatsoever while working in Israel.”

            I suppose that’s why I saw dozens of them lined up at the shopping mall near the Dror Junction (in Israel proper as we call within the pre-1967 border) at midday one day last week and border police and ordinary police running importantly around clutching papers. They’re not paid for the working time that wastes. – The Palestinians looked resigned, like they were used to it.

            I don’t usually get abusive, but if anyone is lying it is you, Trespasser, although it may be unwittingly. Sad you don’t get around more.

            Reply to Comment
          • The Trespasser

            >I suppose that’s why I saw dozens of them lined up at the shopping mall near the Dror Junction

            As irrelevant as ever. We’ve been discussing risks which illegal Palestinians might be facing, while you bringing up an example covering Palestinians who have work permits.

            By the way, you are still to explain what risks exactly are taking Palestinian workers.

            >The Palestinians looked resigned, like they were used to it.

            Of course they are used to it. Waging wars has it’s drawbacks.

            >I don’t usually get abusive, but if anyone is lying it is you, Trespasser, although it may be unwittingly.

            Hmm… let’s see…
            Author of the article claims that there is some 30000 illegal Palestinian workers, which is not the fact: 30000 is the number of LEGAL workers, while illegals are about 4% of those.

            But by your standard it is not lying.

            Why am I not surprised?

            >Sad you don’t get around more.
            I get around much more than you could possibly imagine.

            You see, speaking four languages fluently has it’s benefits.

            Reply to Comment
          • sh

            “You see, speaking four languages fluently has it’s benefits.”
            Yeah, I know.

            P.S. How do you know they had work permits? And if they did, why weren’t they working?

            Reply to Comment
          • The Trespasser

            >How do you know they had work permits?
            There is three main reasons to admit Palestinians to Israel
            1 – work
            2 – medicine
            3 – inmate relative

            Obviously, whoever is waiting by the checkpoint has an entry permit.

            You don’t think that Palestinians are dumb enough to stay at checkpoint without a relevant permit?

            >And if they did, why weren’t they working?

            Because they were crossing a border at the moment?

            Reply to Comment
          • The Trespasser

            http://www.ynet.co.il/articles/0,7340,L-4236064,00.html

            Palestinian workers: “African refugees finished us off”

            In short: Palestinians are complaining that African refugees took their jobs and issue warnings against them. Due to Palestinian workers’ claims “they are not like you or me, they hate you”

            By official data there were about 51.5 thousands Palestinian workers in Israel.
            This year the number has grown up to 54.6 thousands.

            Israel provides employment for 16% of all Palestinian work force in WB

            Illegal workers represent 4% of all Palestinians who work in Israel.

            That Alon guy is quite a liar I must say.

            Reply to Comment
      • Kolumn9

        An American preaching on the issue of hipocrisy for the good of business. How refreshing.

        Reply to Comment
        • Not all Americans are alike. Perhaps you want, demand that all Israelis be alike.

          Reply to Comment
      • aristeides

        Comparing the similar situation in the US – illegal immigrants are exploited in much the same way by unscrupulous employers. But the employers have also been targeted by law enforcement, both for employing illegals AND for abusing them. eg, the packing plant in Postville Iowa

        Reply to Comment
        • In Arizona, before implementation of a State law requiring police to check for illegal status under “reasonable suspicion,” police would, say, respond to a wife abuse call without asking about legal status. After the law, some women will not call, for fear of being identified as illegal. Because of this, the Obama Administration has largely gutted the law indirectly, but that is not important here.

          Reply to Comment
      • What seems clear is that Israeli security WOULD intervene if violence was plausible; so the apparatus has decided otherwise, which makes one wonder about the justification for finishing the Wall.

        What Trespasser fails to understand is that ANY occupation works partly on instilling fear. The IDF arrests and searches without explanation, creating a feeling of omnipotence in the field, and can deny entry at a check point without explantion, to same end. Families of declared terrorists can have there house demolished. Trespasser, seeing the friendly side of the IDF, and loving Torah based collectie punishment, is most satisfied to see generalized fear among Bank residents. That fear can become paralizing in ways the unexposed may not fathom. Illegal workers may well fear the long, God like arm of the IDF at home.

        Reply to Comment
    5. Jan

      This is nothing new. The abuse of Palestinian workers has gone on for many years. In “the only democracy in the Middle East” Israeli Palestinian workers as well has workers from the Occupied Territories have long been denied the same rights and benefits that Jewish workers receive.

      There is little or no construction work in the Occupied Territories other than building the illegal settlements or illegally working in Israel. Palestinians need to feed their families so they do the work that Jews do not want to do and work for far less money than would be paid to Jews for the same kind of work.

      It reminds me of those in the US who do not want to dirty their hands with the work that undocumented workers do and yet scream about undocumented workers coming in.

      Reply to Comment
    6. Philos

      I’m waiting for the sociological (maybe pyschological) explanation for why Israel attracts all the racist and borderline fascists of the otherwise humanitarian and liberal Diaspora Jewry? @ Trespasser

      Reply to Comment
      • The Trespasser

        >I’m waiting for the sociological (maybe pyschological) explanation for why Israel attracts all the racist and borderline fascists of the otherwise humanitarian and liberal Diaspora Jewry?

        It is a question equal to the famous “Have you stopped beating your wife?”

        Your question is based on two assumptions:
        1 – Israel is all fascists and racists
        2 – Diaspora Jews are humanitarian and liberal

        Both these assumptions are nothing but blatant lies.

        Reply to Comment
        • Philos

          @ Trepasser, I’ll engage but I fear it is futile because your response indicates a clear lack of frontal lobe faculties of the brain.

          My question does not presume Israel is “all fascists and racists”; it asks why fascists and racists (aka “wingnuts”) from the Jewish diaspora gravitate to make aliyah to Israel rather than the more liberal members of the Jewish diaspora for which it is famous for.

          Why is it that the settlers, especially the really crazy ones, speak Hebrew with accents tinged with North America, Australia, South Africa and England? Why don’t we get Woody Allen’s but seem to overflow with Meir Kahane’s? I think these are questions that ought to be dealt with seriously by sociologists and psychologists.

          Reply to Comment
          • The Trespasser

            Strangely my answer had disappeared from the page.

            Sorry, but I can’t be bothered to write it again.

            Reply to Comment
          • Philos

            It was probably censored because it primarily consisted of hate filled bile, no doubt

            Reply to Comment
          • The Trespasser

            Doubt or not – the 972mag has lost remainders of credibility.

            Liar should be treat as such.

            Reply to Comment
      • I don’t think Israel attrackts those people, but opportunity makes a thief. All subsequent Israeli governments have made it both easy and legal to become a thief.

        Reply to Comment
    7. Andrew Miller

      Thirty thousand undocumented Palestinians from the West Bank who work in Israel. Thirty thousand more who work in Israel with documents. This is one of many facts which suggest that The Wall, by itself, is not responsible for the absence of suicide bombings in recent years. Even with The Wall, Palestinians still have access to Israel’s urban centers.

      Reply to Comment
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