Munir Kawar (64 years old) and Ibrahim Zachalka (60) are Arab construction workers from Kufr Qara in Wadi Ara. Their stories convey what many Arab men of their generation living in Israel have undergone. In the first years of the state, they found jobs in construction, because other industries were closed to them. In building the boom was so strong, and the demand for labor so intense, that Arabs could get good pay with full social benefits.
This situation changed for the worse in the mid-1980’s. The country went into a severe economic crisis, whose causes we have analyzed elsewhere. (See “The Hidden Economic Logic of Oslo,” Challenges 51-52.)
To tackle this crisis, a national-unity government arose. Its reforms included a policy of privatization. In the publicly-owned companies, a large proportion of the work force had tenure. By privatizing, one could nullify this. For example, Solel Boneh, a huge construction firm belonging to the Histadrut, had 18,000 tenured workers. After privatization in the early 1990’s, it fired more than 15,000. Today Solel Boneh has just a few hundred of its own employees. It gets its manual laborers from personnel companies and subcontractors.
Before the reforms, the construction workers had a very strong pension fund, to which the employer had to contribute an amount equal to 36% of the worker’s gross salary. In addition to the old-age pension, this fund included payments for severance, illness, injury, and vacation. The reforms cut the employer’s contribution in half and limited pension coverage to payments for severance and old age.
In 1995, after a massive spate of housing construction for immigrants from the former Soviet Union, the construction industry went into recession. A mass import of migrant workers began. Lacking union representation and social benefits, these cost their employers about $2 less per hour than Arab workers from Israel, and about 35,000 of the latter lost their jobs.
In January 2002, Israel was faced with high unemployment and negative growth. Almost 300,000 Israelis were on the dole, while some 300,000 migrants were sending most of their earnings out of the economy. Fearing a sharp decline in foreign investment, the government decided to stop importing migrants and to deport those who’d become illegal.
About 10,000 Arab workers have gained construction jobs since then. Of these, very few have done so in an organized framework with full social benefits. Among the few are Ibrahim Zachalka and Munir Kawar, who joined the Workers Advice Center (WAC-MA’AN) in August 2002. I interviewed them on December 18, 2004.
Please give us a little of your personal history. How long have you been working in construction? What kind of experience have you had with the companies?
Munir Kawar: I was born in 1940. I’ve been building since the age of 19. I learned the trade on the job, which wasn’t easy, believe me. I started at the lowest rank. After working at several places, I got a job in 1963 with the construction department of the United Kibbutz Movement (ha-Kibbutz ha-Meuhad), and I worked there nine years. That company took an interest in every worker. Each month one of the directors would show up. He knew us by name. He’d ask if we had complaints. Today it’s completely different. Even the foreman doesn’t know his workers.
In 1970 Solel Boneh bought up the construction units of the United Kibbutz Movement. I had a chance to resign with compensation, and I took it. Then I worked as an independent contractor. In 1976 I joined the construction department of the Nationwide Kibbutz Movement (ha-Kibbutz ha-Artzi), which belonged to Mapam [a political party – A.A.]. I worked there as a supervisor for twenty years. The company guaranteed my benefits, but it went bankrupt in 1995. My friends and I lost our livelihoods, which had seemed so secure.
The bankruptcy left me with very little. Not only that. I couldn’t find a steady job. My age was also a factor. Then I heard that WAC was helping workers like me and I turned to them for a job.
Ibrahim Zachalka: I went to work after finishing seventh grade. That was in the 1950’s, when the military administration was still in place. [The Arab citizens of Israel were under military administration from 1948 until 1966. – A.A.] At first I did all kinds of jobs, but in my 19th year someone told me that good work could be found in Tel Aviv. It turned out to be dangerous. I had to stand in an external elevator at a height of 16 stories and spray plaster. None of the skilled Jewish workers were willing to do this. I agreed, because the salary was three times as much as I could earn in the north.After that I took all kinds of jobs. The supervisors would beg you to come work for them. For 22 years, from 1975 until 1997, I headed a team from Kufr Qara for a drainage company.
In 1997 the company’s ownership changed hands and all its workers were fired. Then began a long, fruitless search. I learned plumbing, but no company was willing to take me. Then I heard that Munir had started working for Solel Boneh. He asked me to join his team in the framework of WAC.
Why did so many Arab men of your generation go into construction?
Munir Kawar: In the 1960’s construction workers received better pay than schoolteachers. The job conditions were good. Every construction worker was registered with a pension fund. He’d get money for a holiday. In construction they simply courted us.
Ibrahim Zachalka: Supervisors from the pension fund would come to the job sites and check the lists to make sure that the workers were registered with the fund. If you got sick, you’d go to the fund and get sick pay. If you had an accident, you could get your salary for eight months while you recovered.
What effect did the entry of workers from the Occupied Territories have?
Munir Kawar: The Palestinian workers from the Territories entered the labor market just after the 1967 War, when there was enormous demand for labor and no competition. Whoever wanted to work in construction could.
Ibrahim Zachalka: In the reliable companies, Solel Boneh and others, workers from the Territories received a pension fund just like residents of Israel. With the migrants it’s different. They arrive in groups and work under very bad conditions for less pay, lowering the status of construction workers in general.
Some claim that Arab workers do not want to work, but prefer to register for unemployment benefits.
Munir Kawar: After I was fired in 1995, I went to the Employment Bureau in Hadera. The clerk said exactly that: “You people don’t want to work.” I told him that as a registered supervisor I’d made between 7000 and 9000 shekels per month, and I’m ready to go down to 3000 if he can find me a steady job. But he had no work to give. The next time I worked was through WAC, which got me a job with Solel Boneh.
Do you get as much via WAC as you did in the good years from the Histadrut and the pension fund?
Munir Kawar: No, we are going through a period of wage decline in construction. The companies make you feel they don’t need you, they’ve got so many others to pick from. That said, what we get by means of WAC is much more than what the unorganized migrant gets. The important thing, though, is the feeling of confidence in our own abilities. The Histadrut and the pension fund never showed any interest in us when the work hours were over. In Arab society there was never an attempt like this one to organize groups of workers and relate to them as a social group.
Ibrahim Zachalka: I was active in al-Jabha (Hadash, a front led by the Communist Party), as many of us were in the 70’s and 80’s. The people in al-Jabha used to write about workers’ issues. They spoke for workers’ rights and stood with Arab workers in opposition to the Mapai leadership of the Histadrut. (Mapai was the forerunner of the Labor Party.) But they didn’t initiate systematic action to organize us. In this respect, WAC’s initiative is something new, and for us it’s a ray of hope.