Three Chinese construction workers gave their Israeli counterparts a lesson yesterday in standing up for their rights - from 20 floors above ground. For several hours they stood atop the arm of a giant crane, demanding the money they believe they were owed, before the contractor employing them gave in and paid them hours before they returned to China.
The workers - Huang Bing, Yuang Tsung Bing and Wan Ping - are in all their 40s and have families in China. Each was paid NIS 4,000 in cash, as were two of their co-workers who did not take part in the protest.
"We wouldn't have come down," they said yesterday, their words translated by an employee of the non-profit organization Kav LaOved ("Workers' Hotline"). "We would have waited another two days on the crane and paid the 100-dollar fine."
The episode started early yesterday morning at the construction site of a 20-story luxury tower on Kiryat Ono's Rabin Street.
"At 6:30 A.M. I started working," said the crane operator. "At 7:30 the group of Chinese workers went up there. I've worked with them for a year and I know them. I brought the crane up and they took a dangerous position at the edge."
"I saw them and talked to them, and they said enough is enough - that they had a flight to China that night and they hadn't gotten their money," he said.
A Magen David Adom ambulance arrived at the site, accompanied by a police negotiating team, as well as Interior Ministry inspectors and Chinese embassy staff.
Officials later arrived from the Industry, Trade and Labor Ministry bureau responsible for foreign workers, and seemed to offer a solution to the crisis - the workers would each receive NIS 4,000 in cash from the contractor carrying out the construction, A. Matar Initiating Construction and Development.
At around 4:30 P.M. a messenger from A. Matar arrived and handed the money to the ministry representatives. They, accompanied by representatives of the Chinese embassy, gave the workers their money. Meir Shpigler, an attorney who heads the ministry's unit for foreign workers, admitted yesterday that the solution was not completely legal, as the money came from a contractor who was not the workers' legal employer, but "considering the circumstances, it was not possible to reach a better solution, as they had plane tickets for that night." He said his department would open an investigation into the affair.
He also disclosed another interesting piece of information: This was not the first time these workers had protested on the crane, and they had already done so a week ago. A month ago a different group of workers, also employed at a construction site of A. Matar in Tzrifin, took similar actions. Shpigler said they were investigating the previous incident and yesterday's case just added to the actions of A. Matar.
After getting their money, the workers hurried off to hail a taxi and rush to Ben-Gurion Airport, after three years in Israel. At the airport, they told Haaretz that they still have not received all their money, and they still had not received their wages for September, over NIS 3,000 apiece.
They told how they earned about NIS 8,000 a month, some of it unreported, and sent some NIS 7,000 of that to their families in China. They lived in the Arab town of Tira in tiny rooms, with two people sharing four square meters. They worked 12 and a half hours a day, seven days a week, except for Fridays when they only worked 8 and a half hours.
The ministry's preliminary investigation yesterday shows the workers were illegally employed in addition to their regular full-time jobs, said Shpigler, and possibly received money under the table. He said that while it seems the money for the workers came from A. Matar, their real employer was a contracting firm called A.S., which is responsible for the workers' conditions, wages and other legal rights. A. Matar only carried out the construction at the site, and the main contractor is a different firm, the Ortam-Malibu group.
The preliminary investigation also seemed to show that the person who was the intermediary between A. Matar and the workers for their overtime hours was a contractor named Rais Sinai, who cannot be located for now.