MK Miri Regev (Likud), an outspoken proponent of expelling African asylum seekers from Israel, raised eyebrows at a recent Knesset Interior and Environment Committee meeting when she called for increasing the number of foreign workers in Israel. She didn’t have Sudanese or Eritrean refugees in mind, though, but rather construction workers, preferably from China, who specialize in the steel skeletons, flooring and plastering of buildings.
Regev was voicing a demand expressed by the country’s building contractors, who want to boost the quota on foreign construction workers at least fivefold. But that’s just one side of the equation. The situation is complicated, and the figures on the subject are in dispute. On one side is Nissim Bublil, the head of the Israel Builder’s Association, which represents the country’s general contractors. He says that if the pace of residential construction is to be stepped up, as the government is seeking to do in an effort to boost supply and lower housing costs, the current 4,700 foreign construction workers here, in addition to 800 foreign laborers at Defense Ministry project sites, are insufficient.
Bublil is calling for a massive influx of construction workers from abroad, who would come for five years. If the government wants to boost housing starts by 50% and also carry out its plan to shift much of the Israel Defense Forces to the south, relocating many soldiers-cum-manual laborers, an additional 34,000 foreign construction workers will be needed, he says. His number is based on an assumption that 9,400 workers are needed for every 10,000 housing units.
But the Housing and Construction Ministry has a different view, based on a consultant’s study that it commissioned. The ministry says the labor shortage is localized to high-rise construction, which has become more common in recent years. On that basis, an additional 7,000 foreign workers are necessary, the ministry claims. In any event, the current quota of 8,000 workers is not being used due to government concerns. The government worries that if the contractors bring in their own laborers, they will be exploited. An even bigger potential problem, in the government’s view, is that workers could be brought in through manpower agencies.
As a result, Israel only accepts foreign workers from countries it has bilateral agreements with. So far, agreements have only been signed with Bulgaria and the former Soviet republic of Moldova. The largest numbers of laborers with the necessary construction skills are from China.
With all workers that it accepts, Israel must consider whether they will leave with their visas expire. “The Chinese don’t stay here,” Bublil responds. “They get tens of thousands of shekels in severance pay from employers as part of their labor agreement and go home after five years. With them, actually, there is no problem.”
Of the total current workforce of about 200,000 people in the construction industry, about 150,000 are Israeli. But for the most part, they don’t do the work on the skeleton of buildings or as skilled laborers doing flooring and plastering, even though such workers can earn net salaries of up to 20,000 shekels ($5,700) a month. “Training in this trade takes about two years,” Bublil says, “It’s the hardest work, in the heat and on scaffolding. On one hand, there is no system here to train Israelis for such work, but on the other hand, we have tried to train several hundred Israelis in recent years, but they don’t last.” The Chinese can earn up to 20,000 shekels here because they are paid based on their output, Bublil explains. “The Israelis are slower and also prefer easier work. They understand that at the end of the month, they’ll be getting 8,000 shekels and prefer to go work at a bank.”
The government has invested considerable sums in training Israeli construction workers, the Housing Ministry said, but the program produced fewer than 1,000 people, many of whom left the field. Because there is a shortfall of thousands of laborers, the ministry said, it is pushing to increase the current quota from 8,000 to 15,000 workers, adding that negotiations are currently underway with China and Romania, although it will be months before they result in agreements.
Another option is employing Palestinians from the West Bank. In fact, about 30,000 Palestinians that are skilled in flooring and plastering and related skills work in Israel and another 13,500 work in West Bank Jewish settlements. The number of work permits being issued to Palestinians in the field is on the rise this year. But unlike Chinese workers, who live at the construction site and can start work at 7 A.M. and quit after sunset, Palestinian workers commute to construction sites in Israel and have to finish work by around 3 P.M. to make the trip home through army roadblocks.
Construction Ministry figures show that, like their Israeli counterparts, Palestinian productivity in this specialized field is generally much lower than the typical Chinese migrant laborer working here. And Bublil adds that if for security reasons, Palestinians were barred from coming into the country even once, it would cause problems throughout the construction industry.
Ze’ev Rotem of Rotem Strategy, which conducted the study on the need for foreign construction workers for the Housing Ministry, said the need to step up the pace of construction to lower prices should not be overstated. “The housing problem in Israel is not the result of a housing shortage, but rather the fact that investors, both local and foreign, are buying up homes and raising their price,” he said. “The government can relatively easily stop this by increasing the tax on those who buy as an investment.”