Shopping centers outside the country's big cities have led to a massive increase in Shabbat employment in the past 10-15 years. Data collected by the Planning, Research and Economics Administration at the Industry, Trade and Employment Ministry shows that 345,000 people, or 18.9 percent of Israel's wage earners over the age of 18, work at least one Shabbat a month.

Among Shabbat workers (who also work during the week), 65 percent are veteran Israelis, 17 percent are new immigrants, and 18 percent are Arabs. The percentage of Arabs employed on Shabbat is greater than their representative proportion among wage earners, which is 14 percent.

Some 51 percent of Shabbat workers are in the 25-35 age group, with most of them employed in food services or sales - jobs best suited for young people. Only 6 percent of those who work on Shabbat are over 55.

Director of the Planning, Research and Economics Administration, Benny Pfefferman, says that most Shabbat workers have no higher education (20 percent do not even have a matriculation certificate) and earn low wages. The few Shabbat workers who have post-secondary education are immigrants from the 1990s who have been unable to find steady work in their professions, or university students whose only available time for working is on weekends.

The average wage of people who work on Shabbat as well as during the week is NIS 6,400, slightly lower than the national average. Still, considering that Shabbat workers work more hours per month, averaging 240 hours compared to 175 hours for salaried weekday employees, and considering that workers earn 1.5 times their regular hourly wage for hours worked on Shabbat, these workers' hourly wages are particularly low.

Pfefferman found that 30 percent of Shabbat workers do not receive the extra pay to which they are entitled for working on Shabbat. Some 15 percent of Shabbat workers are salaried workers, and only 55 percent of them actually receive the full supplement they are due for Shabbat work.

Pfefferman explains that this wage exploitation exists because most Shabbat workers come from relatively poor socio-economic backgrounds and are willing to work on Shabbat even if they are not being paid properly in order to increase their incomes.

"This is the weakest population among wage earners," Pfefferman says, adding that these workers meet the strongest sector of the wage-earning population, which shops at malls open on Shabbat.

Histadrut labor federation sources estimate that half of all Shabbat workers would prefer to stay at home or engage in leisure activities or studies on Shabbat, rather than go to work. However, economic difficulties, which have worsened over the past several years of recession, have tipped the scales in favor of working on Shabbat.

The plan

According to Pfefferman's research, when one spouse works on Shabbat there is a tendency for the other spouse to work on Shabbat as well.

A survey conducted by Pfefferman's department in 2003 regarding Shabbat shopping habits among Israelis revealed that 36 percent of veteran Israelis regularly shop on Shabbat. Among new immigrants, the figure was even higher, 41 percent, while the highest percentage of Shabbat shopping was among Arabs. Veteran Israelis interviewed for the survey reported having shopped an average of 17 times on Shabbat in the previous year, or once every three weeks. New immigrants shop on Shabbat practically every other week, while Arabs shopped on Shabbat at least every other week.

The average sum spent by veteran Israelis and new immigrants on Shabbat shopping trips in 2003 was NIS 280, while Arabs spent up to NIS 500 each time.

"Shopping on Shabbat, which includes Saturday evening, will become more prevalent as the public views malls outside cities not only as shopping areas, but as part of Israel's developing leisure culture," Pfefferman says.

The growing worldwide phenomenon of commercial centers outside cities is attractive to shoppers due to their abundant parking and entertainment attractions. Pfefferman says that such centers here that are open on Shabbat will need more Shabbat workers, particularly shelf stockers, salespeople and food services personnel.

Director of Kav LaOved workers' hotline, Hanna Zohar, says that while some employers pay their workers more than the 50-percent premium dictated by Israeli law regarding hourly wages for work on Shabbat (including Saturday evening), others ignore the law, and there is insufficient law enforcement.

Can a worker be ordered to work on Shabbat and be denied employment or fired if he refuses?

"The laws governing work hours and rest forbid the employment of workers on the weekly rest day [i.e. Shabbat for Jews, Sunday for Christians, and Friday for Muslims], in order to prevent a situation in which a person works seven days a week," says attorney Ami Frenkel. "Still, the law has loopholes for granting specific permits, such as for security guards, whose work is considered a life-saving measure, and therefore, is permissible."

In any event, a religious person cannot be ordered to work on his Sabbath and cannot be fired for refusing to do so.