Israeli ultra-Orthodox Women's 'Slave Market': Lower Wages, More Exploitation

The state encourages Haredi women to join the workforce, taking pride in the surge in their numbers, but doesn’t monitor or regulate the working conditions of many of them

Illustration: An ultra-Orthodox woman pushing a stroller.
Olivier Fitoussi

Zehava was a teacher at an ultra-Orthodox academic institution in the Jerusalem area and for an entire year was not paid for her work nor receive any social benefits, she says. She went on maternity leave for a year, and when she returned her employers refused to give her back her job. “Many women hesitate before fighting for their rights,” she says, adding that “in our community, the ones who speak out are the exception.”

“I understood that if I remain silent, I’ll definitely lose, but that if I fight I might get what I deserve,” Zehava says. So she turned to a hotline designated for working Haredi, or ultra-Orthodox, women, which is operated by the Israel Women’s Network, a lobby group.

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A new report, summarizing the hotline’s first year of operation, shows that there were 900 complaints over that period. This high number, reported here for the first time, reflects the extent to which the basic rights of ultra-Orthodox women are violated. In comparison, the total number of calls in 2017 to the Finance Ministry’s Equal Employment Opportunity Commission, by both men and women, was 760.

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The larger number of calls by Haredi women to the hotline that is specially designated for them is not self-evident, given the sanctions and retribution Haredi women often face. These women are in many cases employed by companies, organizations and institutions that are under the state’s jurisdiction or subject to its monitoring.

These figures may serve to dispel the hypocritical situation in which the state encourages Haredi women to join the workforce, taking pride in the surge in their numbers, but doesn’t monitor or regulate the working conditions of many of these women.

“I didn’t get even the most basic rights that are stipulated by law,” says Zehava. “When I demanded these rights, my employers were evasive. They claimed they had no money or that the matter needed further investigation. I was once asked why I continue going to a workplace that doesn’t pay me all I’m owed, but one should understand that this practice is very prevalent. In many cases the women are helpless. They’re afraid to file a complaint out of fear of being fired immediately and because of other threats. Under these conditions, it’s preferable to shut up and continue suffering. The reality can indeed be very harsh.”

Miriam is very familiar with the difficulties Zehava describes. For 10 years, she worked as a programmer at a small software company. Her hours were repeatedly slashed until she was down to one quarter of her original hours, and she decided to quit - only to discover that her employers were willing to pay her only part of the severance money she was owed.

“Lawyers I consulted with said that the amount I was owed was too small, which meant it wasn’t worth their while. I became desperate.” Just before she gave up she turned to the hotline and was directed to attorney Goldie Rothenberg, who filed a lawsuit in Miriam’s name. The District Labor Court in Tel Aviv ruled that the company must pay her the full amount she was owed, 36,000 shekels (roughly $10,000). “As a working Haredi woman, I remember well the feelings of frustration and helplessness in instances of exploitation by employers,” attorney Rothenberg, who volunteers with the hotline, says.

According to the Central Bureau of Statistics, 72.6 percent of Haredi women worked in 2016, a number comparable to that of women in the general population but still lower than the rate among secular Jewish women, which was 81.9 percent. In the Haredi community, this reflects a 194 percent rise over the 2014 rate. 

In 2017, according to the Labor and Social Affairs Ministry, the average monthly wage of Haredi women was 6,000 shekels, lagging far behind the average salary of non-Haredi Jewish women, which was 9,400 shekels. The gap is explained at least partly by the fact that 50 percent of Haredi women work part-time, compared to 30 percent among non-Haredi women. This situation lends itself to systematic exploitation, made worse also by the absence of unionization.

The hotline opened in October 2017 in order to help ultra-Orthodox women contend with the particular challenges they face. The hotline was formed as a separate branch of the general hotline operated by the Women’s Network, with the understanding that the best way to assist this group is through a tailored response, including pro bono legal assistance in issues concerning labor laws. While most of the complaints that reach the general hotline deal with gender discrimination, rights connected to pregnancy, childbirth, sexual harassment or wage discrimination, more than 60 percent of the complaints addressed to the Haredi hotline deal with basic social rights such as employer payments to pension funds, severance pay, payment for sick days and vacation days.

Israel Women's Network employees and volunteers: Michal Vega-Levental, Michal Czernowitzki, Michal Gera-Margaliot, Goldie Rothenberg and Amit Kobo-Rom.
Moti Milrod

Almost half of employed Haredi women are employed in educational institutions. This is also reflected in the breakdown of the women who turn to the hotline: Thirty-five percent of them worked in education or childcare, and a third of those who filed complaints worked in places that receive public funding – government offices, local authorities, schools and kindergartens, where budgets are controlled by the Education Ministry. Twenty-seven percent of complainants worked for private companies such as credit companies or call centers. No details are available for the other 40 percent, usually because the women were afraid of giving full details.

'Slave market'

Michal Czernowitzki, the CEO of the non-profit organization Ir Va’em and a member of the Women’s Network board, held a series of parlor meetings last week, telling Haredi women about their rights as employees. Each meeting was held in a different city and attended by several dozen women. The meeting in Modi’in Ilit opened with a declaration by one of the participants that the situation was akin to a “slave market.” 

“After listening for two hours I realized this was no exaggeration,” says Czernowitzki. “In addition to horror stories we know from other places – such as ones about women who were required to pay back in cash for vacation days the employer had given them – many participants expressed fears that they would be ‘marked’ if they complained and that this would affect their chances of finding employment elsewhere, as well as their children’s chances of being accepted to educational institutions.”

Czernowitzki adds that the “slave market” is made possible by a host of circumstances unique to the Haredi population. Among them, according to her, are that women are directed to study education, which narrows their opportunities. In addition, she identifies ultra-Orthodox women’s confinement to Haredi communities, which often lack public transportation, a system of unmonitored autonomous Haredi courts which settle labor disputes, among other conflicts and an education system that is controlled by private NGOs.

Public funding for these institutions has not led to state supervision, certainly not an effective one, she says. In this respect, there is no difference between the Haredi resistance to teach Israel’s core curriculum in state-funded Haredi school - one of the most fraught struggles between the Haredi community and the government - and ignoring employee rights. “From the outside it’s hard to understand why women don’t complain,” says Czernowitzki. “The state transfers the funds but hardly checks what is done with them. Out of a distorted understanding of multiculturalism or due to political interests, the state has abandoned these women.”

Violating the rights of female Haredi employees is “serious, deep and systematic,” says attorney Amit Kobo-Rom, who directs a general hotline for working women at the Women’s Network. “Many of the women who turn to us don’t know their basic rights and are often unaware of their existence.” The head of the Women’s Network, Michal Gera-Margaliot, says that “the high rate of poverty in Haredi society is partly explained by inadequate wages and the violation of labor laws in places where women work. The state has to influence Haredi women’s employment and certainly to protect their rights.”

The new report, which takes a look at the first year of the operation of the Haredi women’s hotline, lists recommendations for improving the situation of female Haredi employees. For example, holding a campaign to increase awareness of employee rights among employers and female employees in Haredi society; strengthening ties between enforcement agencies and senior Haredi officials; increased enforcement at workplaces which employ substantial numbers of Haredi women, with an emphasis on enforcing protective rights; as well as promoting direct employment by the ministry of education rather than by intermediary organizations, in the hope of limiting the number of women who are employed by non-profit groups and therefore increase the state’s direct accountability. All of this is aimed at limiting a systematic violation of their rights. 

Sources at the Labor and Social Affairs Ministry say the report has not yet reached the ministry, but note that the ultra-Orthodox sector, and women in particular, have been defined as a high-priority target for increased enforcement. They add that a campaign was launched this year in that community, aimed at increasing awareness of labor laws and their enforcement. In the past two months, ministry representatives have met with the Women’s Network in order to promote cooperation between the two sides.

Emergency medical services normalizing segregation

Magen David Adom, Israel's rescue services, asked people signing up for a first aid course an unusual question: “Will you have a problem if the course is mixed-gender?” The answers included “no problem,” “no problem, but I’d prefer segregation,” “I do have a problem but I’ll show up” and “I do have a problem with that.” 

Earlier this year there was an incident in which Magen David Adom prevented female volunteers from working shifts following demands by men to arrange a woman-free environment. Following this incident, representatives of the Women’s Network met with senior MDA officials and suggested a series of steps that would prevent the segregation of women. Elinor Davidov, who’s in charge of female segregation at the Women’s Network, said that the questions that appear on registration forms show an ongoing trend of gender discrimination at MDA. In a letter to MDA managers, Davidov wrote that “the option of taking part in a segregated course and the legitimization given to such demands is in contrast to the principle of equality, giving an unacceptable message that any meeting between the sexes is potentially dangerous.” This, she says, contributes to the spread of the conception that female presence in common spheres is problematic or defiling.

The rescue service is not the only place such segregation happens. This week, in his first day on the job, the director of the Finance Ministry's Capital Markets Authority, Moshe Bareket, asked to replace the female driver he was assigned with a man. "I have high regard for women, but in this case, it involves an intimate space, and I prefer to be cautious, because someone could accuse me falsely," he explained to investigative reporter Sharon Shpurer. Following criticism, he retracted, saying he would seek guidelines from the Civil Service Commission. A month earlier, Uri Misgav reported in Haaretz that the IDF yielded to a demand by a commander of the Golan Brigade, Col. Avinoam Emunah, to post a male soldier instead of a female one as the army spokesman since it was “unpleasant to travel with a woman in a Pajero SUV.” 

In response to this story, the MDA said that courses are mixed-gender, and include men and women from all sectors of society. “If a group forms and asks for segregation and the organization can adapt the course to different needs, there is a separate course for men and women. We’re proud of this and will continue to do so.”