Even the Coronavirus Crisis Can’t Get Israelis to Take Hotel Cleaning Jobs

The treasury hoped otherwise, but it looks like 1,000 Jordanians will be coming back to their old jobs in Eilat

Sami Peretz
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A view of hotels in Eilat before the coronavirus crisis, December 26, 2019.
A view of hotels in Eilat before the coronavirus crisis, December 26, 2019.Credit: Adi Daud
Sami Peretz

An important endeavor by the Finance Ministry to convince Israelis to work as cleaners in Eilat hotels appears doomed for failure. The hotel operators in the southern resort town say that without cleaners they won’t be able to reopen after the coronavirus lockdown and help alleviate the town’s severe unemployment. Without people to clean rooms, there won’t be any need to hire back bartenders, chefs, entertainers and reception desk clerks.

The hotels tried to hire Israelis to clean rooms. Over the last month, they’ve held three job fairs to offer Israelis jobs, but they didn’t get a single taker. Now they are asking for permission to bring back workers from Jordan next door, who had been cleaning rooms prior to the outbreak of the pandemic. They need no fewer than 1,000 of them.

The coronavirus has taken a heavy toll on Eilat, whose economy revolves around tourism. In March, the unemployment rate there skyrocketed to 69.5%. The job market has since recovered somewhat, but last month the jobless rate was still 45%, the highest of any city in Israel. It won’t go much lower until the hotels can reopen and the tourists return.

The Finance Ministry had an idea: At a time of high unemployment all over Israel, the hotels should be providing jobs for Israelis, not Jordanians. If the job market in Israel is as bad as everyone says it is, Israelis won’t be too fussy about what work they can get, including cleaning hotel rooms, if that’s what there is.

But it hasn’t happened, so the hotels are pressuring the National Security Council and the Interior Ministry to allow them to recruit Jordanians.

The treasury has no shortage of tasks in the economic crisis created by the coronavirus, and the most critical of all is returning the job market back to its pre-pandemic level. But one thing that is clear even in this early phase of the recovery process is that employment won’t return to normal very quickly. If the government has responded to the new normal with unprecedented moves such as extended unemployment benefits and cancelling municipal tax obligations for business, then business and labor should respond, too.

The treasury has also been under immense pressure during the crisis not to make any mistakes. The fact that Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu ordered a grandiose 80 billion shekel ($23 billion) rescue program for the economy requires that the treasury be sure the largesse reaches the right places – those who are really in need of aid. Still, there have been mistakes, such as the government’s inadvertently giving incentives for employers to put workers on unpaid leave even when they didn’t need to.

Under the circumstances, you can understand why treasury officials are having had a hard time with the idea of granting 6 billion shekels to employers to encourage them to rehire staff and extending jobless benefits, while at the same time they are letting Eilat hotels hire hundreds of Jordanians. It’s like pouring oil on a fire while trying to extinguish it. Officials reason that if the hotels pay competitive wages, Israelis will work in them, even in cleaning jobs.

The suspicion is that the hotels don’t want Israeli workers; hiring Jordanians is easier and cheaper.

In any case, the issue may not just be about pay. Asher Gabay, who owns the Astral Hotels chain, has reopened just two of the company’s six Eilat hotels because there aren’t enough workers. He says he could open all six and is confident he can reach full occupancy during the summer, but to do that he needs workers.

Gabay has given the Finance Ministry a simple lesson in employment mathematics: For every Jordanian hired as a hotel cleaner, the hotels will employ five Israeli workers in other jobs. Conversely, every one jobless Jordanian leaves five jobless Israelis.

The treasury says it isn’t trying to force Israelis into cleaning jobs, but they are not ready to accept the idea that Israelis will never do it at any price. If the pay were right, Israelis would take a vacuum cleaner in hand.

However, this raises the broader question regarding foreign guest workers. Certain industries and job categories have become their exclusive preserve – home nursing care, agriculture and construction in particular. These jobs have now been labeled “for foreign workers only.” That’s what has happened to hotel cleaning jobs, too, and it’s become a major obstacle to hiring Israelis.

Let’s be honest – being a cleaner is not everyone’s dream job. No parent is going to push their children into the profession, but there was a time when it was considered a legitimate part-time job for students. Hotel executives say that the minute guest workers were hired, the job status of hotel cleaners dropped. The coronavirus crisis might change attitudes again and make cleaning an acceptable alternative.

Last week, the National Security Council called together officials from the tourism and interior ministries as well as hotel executives to discuss a solution. The ball is now in the court of Interior Minister Arye Dery, who among other things is in charge of the Population and Immigration Authority.

There’s a solution lying right under everyone’s noses: Employing refugees living in South Tel Aviv in Eilat hotels. The problem is that this runs counter to the government’s policy of encouraging the refugees to leave Israel, so it’s an option that’s been rejected from the get-go.

The Interior Ministry prefers Jordanians who cross the border in the morning to come to work and return at night. The problem with that is the coronavirus. The hotels are proposing that before Jordanian workers enter Israel, they undergo a 14-day quarantine in housing provided by the hotels in Eilat. After that, they will be given housing arranged for them on the Jordanian side of the border from which they will not be able to leave. It’s not a great arrangement for the workers, but the hotels assume that the prospect of a job should make it easier to swallow.

Whatever the final arrangement is, it’s almost certain now not to involve Israelis cleaning hotel rooms. It might have worked, if it had been part of a comprehensive program rather than a one-time case of muscle-flexing by a few officials, but the treasury plan is destined to be a flop. It didn’t stand the test of employment mathematics or pressure from the hotel industry. If officials insist on holding out longer in the hope something will change, they will end up losing the summer season for the hotels.

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