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WAC - Aktivitätenreport Mai 2006

Über den internationalen Frauentag, den 1. Mai, erwerbslose palästinensische Frauen in der Landwirtschaft und die Versuche eine neue Arbeiterpartei zu organisieren - das sind die Themen der neuesten (englischen) Ausgabe des WAC - eReports vom Mai 2006.

WAC's E-Report No. 8   May 2006

1. WAC's May Day event: Workers Hold Their Heads High

On the eve of May Day (Sunday April 30th), hundreds of Arab construction workers, farm workers (mainly women), Israeli social activists and artists assembled in Tel Aviv to celebrate May Day. The event was organized by WAC-MAAN (Workers Advice Center) and the political party ODA (Organization for Democratic Action).

On regular days, Arab workers from the Galilee, the Triangle and East Jerusalem do not feel at home in Tel Aviv. For two hours, however, they liberated the square of the Cinematheque in the heart of the city. One could see this on their faces: they felt confident and happy to be there.

Five leading singers, Israeli and Arab, contributed to the upbeat mood. Amir Lev, Dan Toren, Nati Ornan, Jalal Ayub and the Arab-Jewish "Lenses" sang workers' songs in Arabic, Hebrew and English to emphasize the day's internationalist spirit.

After an opening speech by moderator Ishai Golan, Asma Agbarieh took the podium. Agbarieh was ODA's first candidate in the recent Knesset elections. She tempered the cheer somewhat by drawing a comparison with last year's May Day celebration in the same place. "What has changed?" she asked. "Poverty has deepened. We have a predatory government serving the interests of the rich. These people sail around in their yachts, and in order to pay for the yacht's gasoline they fire their workers."

As for Amir Peretz, the Labor Party head who is slated to be Defense Minister in the new government, Agbarieh had this to say: "Here's a man who many thought was an authentic workers' leader. But his 'social revolution' has ended with tanks. Amir is it with tanks and artillery that you're going to stop poverty, or are you going to use them to fight in Gaza and the West Bank?"

Jose Escovar, aged 15,  spoke in the name of the Hotline for Migrant Workers. He talked of his mother – a migrant worker from Equador – who works 15 hours a day. Escovar called on workers to fight the slave conditions of migrants and to stop their brutal harassment and deportation by the police.

Assaf Adiv, WAC's National Coordinator presented a bleak picture of the labor market in Israel today: "While the stock exchange rises and billionaires make fortunes, more and more workers in Israel are subjected to subcontractors and personnel companies, where they have no social benefits. More than 25% of the workers in Israel earn less than the minimum wage." Adiv specified WAC's gains in the last year, including opening employment in agriculture and construction according to the terms of the collective agreements with WAC.

Malek Murad, WAC organizer said: "We are not going to shut up just because they want us to. We will fight for our right to a decent job. Do not give us charity. We want jobs, real jobs, and together with WAC we will get them."

Wafah Tayara, a female Arab farm worker who leads WAC's efforts among women, ended the event with a speech full of energy and spirit. Tayara told the workers to see WAC as their address and to join its ranks, because it provides protection and support. "But not only that," she said. "We workers, especially Arabs, are in need of a political voice. Just as the employers who exploit us are supported by the government, we need our own party. ODA was the only party that talked to me not as somebody's wife or daughter. It offered me to be a candidate and a leader in the elections."

At the climax of the event, twenty workers, including six women, employed in agriculture, were given certificates of appreciation by WAC representatives. These men and women were chosen by their work teams as the workers who proved to be most dedicated to their group's needs.

Other speakers at the event were, Haitham Zahalka, leader of the Working Youth, and Shula Keshet from "Ahoti" ("My sister"), an association supporting women below the poverty line.

The theme of the event can be summarized in Asma Agbarieh's words: "We are going to fight and take what belongs to us workers. Let no one delude himself that we will give up."

2.  WAC leaders present crisis of unemployment among Arab workers in high level meetings 

Recently, WAC leaders presented the situation of unemployment among Arab workers in a number of high level meetings. The meetings were held with Mr. Udi Shental, Deputy General Director of the Ministry of Trade Commerce and Labor, A meeting with Mr. Ya'acov Zigdon – Deputy General Manager of the Employment Authority, two presentations in front of Knessent Special Committee on Mehalev – Workfare program (Known also as the Wisconsin Program), two meetings with the Associations of Industrialists and Contractors.

In all of these meetings WAC presented its position regarding the real level of unemployment among Arabs and especially among Arab Youth and Arab Women. WAC offered a plan in a working paper that was presented to the Employment Authority (see WAC's site). This plan to alleviate unemployment was based on the experience WAC has gained in placement of Arab women in Agriculture.

These meetings have also signified WAC's central role in fighting unemployment. In the meeting with the Deputy General Director of the Employment Ministry (April 11th) WAC's National Coordinator Assaf Adiv was asked to present the view of WAC regarding placement of Arab workers and there was a consensus in the room that WAC is doing a lot more than the Employment Authority regarding Arab workers.

In a position paper dated January 2006, written for a meeting with the deputy director-general of the Employment Ministry, Yaakov Zigdon, WAC proposed the following steps:

1. To subsidize every farmer who employs Israeli workers.
2. A gradual decrease in quotas for the import of migrant workers.

An article by WAC's Coordinator Dani Ben Simhoun was also published lately in Ha'aretz (May 8). Ben Simhoun exposed the lie of the employers that "there are no workers in Israel who want to work in Agriculture and therefore it is necessary to import migrant workers".                  

WAC conducts jobs placements under the condition that the employer signs an agreement with WAC in accordance with the collective agreement. WAC does not charge the employers for the service of locating the workers and is doing this work in the framework of its concerted effort to overcome a special situation of segregation and neglect that Arab workers face in the Israeli labor market. 

3. International Women's Day, March 8, 2006

People passing the government offices at a Tel Aviv intersection paused for a strange sight. A hundred women, Arab workers and Jewish activists, stood on the sidewalk with signs proclaiming: "Women want to leave the circle of poverty!" and "Who said Israeli women don't want to work in agriculture?" From the megaphone came phrases in Arabic. Female farm workers and jobless women had arrived from Galilee to protest against a government policy that leaves them in poverty.

Orit Soudry, who organized the demonstration for the Workers Advice Center (WAC-MAAN), announced that WAC was using this day to urge the opening of jobs for Arab women in Israel. "Today," said Soudry, "we offer the Ministry of Commerce and Industry a genuine opportunity to solve our unemployment problem. We say, 'The key is in your hands. Open the door to employment.'"
For the past year WAC has worked hard to bring Israel's jobless Arab women back into agriculture. Although successful to a point, WAC keeps colliding with an obstacle that can only be removed by government action. The farm bosses claim that employing local workers at the legal minimum wage, including social benefits, is too expensive. They prefer either migrant workers from abroad (who arrive helpless and exploitable, having gone into debt to come here) or locals supplied by a contractor. In both these cases, they needn't pay social benefits.

Sigal Rosen, director of Moked – The Hotline for Migrant Workers, spoke to the demonstrators on March 8, addressing the problems of employing migrants and Israeli citizens she said: "All workers suffer from this, whether they're migrants or Israelis, and the only ones who benefit are the employers. Only solidarity among workers, and only a common struggle for jobs under fair conditions for all, can ensure a dignified existence for you and the migrant workers both."

The women who demonstrated on March 8 are the tip of an iceberg. WAC believes there are thousands like them in the Arab sector who want agricultural jobs. The absence of a government policy to encourage them is partly responsible for the large unemployment in the Arab sector. Agriculture is a potentially excellent source of jobs for Arab women, only 17% of whom presently work outside the home (compared with 50% of Jewish women).

One of the speakers at the demonstration was Siham Alawi, a farm worker from Kufr Qara. Alawi is a WAC member, and a mother of 4. She stressed the importance of women's going out to work: "Today's women refuse to accept the attempt to shut them in the house and keep them from developing. Many have broken the chains of tradition and the patriarchal regime. They've gone out to work, and they've proved their capabilities on all levels."

From the words of Hanna Rashed of Nazareth one can see the change that has taken place: "I'm a mother of three. Till five months ago I was a housewife, but then I began to work for Sindyanna of Galilee (a fair-trade organization marketing olive products). I work eight hours a day and get a salary including an official pay slip with all the social benefits. Going out to work has given me self-confidence and helped me develop. It's also been a positive influence on the children, who see me helping to support the family."

4. Asma Agbarieh's Election Diary: The Workers Who Built the Campaign

The unique election campaign of the ODA put the question of a party for workers in the center stage of Israeli politics. Asma Agbarieh, the candidate of the ODA was the only woman who headed a list for the Knessent. She presented a forceful advocacy in the name of the workers she represented. Following is part of her "Election Diary" as was published in Challenge Magazine (May -June 2006).

"Early February. Kufr Qara. Two months until elections. It is a meeting between members of ODA-DAAM, the Organization for Democratic Action, and a group of workers women and men. Today the workers will make a decision as to whether they want to be on the list of ODA candidates for the Knesset. The topic is at the end of the agenda. I'm on pins and needles. Unlike me, the workers sit relaxed in their seats. The youngest is 27, the oldest, Munir Ka'war (Abu Wisam) is 66. His opinion counts the most for me. And for a reason.

Three years ago, when ODA last ran, Abu Wisam claimed that the society wasn't ready for the notion that manual workers could represent themselves: "People will say, 'What do they know about politics?'" When the time arrived to discuss ODA, I asked, "What do you think today, Abu Wisam?" Instead of answering directly, he told the group a story: "Thirty years ago I worked at a building site in Tel Aviv with a young construction engineer from Russia. He used to invite me during the break for a cup of coffee nearby. One day that I'll never forget, one of our fellow workers asked us to take him along so he could go to the bank. After he'd done what he needed, he returned to the car to wait for us while we had our usual coffee. We yelled to him that he should come join us. He excused himself, because he was embarrassed about his dirty work clothes. To my astonishment, the engineer got up, took a stand in the middle of this Tel Aviv street, and delivered a speech in praise of the workers, telling my friend, 'You are the foundation of the whole society!' In Russia they knew how to value the worker." 

This story was the dramatic introduction to Abu Wisam's announcement that he would join the ODA list. He was joined by laborers from Kufr Qara, Nazareth, Um al-Fahm, Kfar Manda, Shaab and other places – for a total of 29 men and women.

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