For Many Young Israelis, Pitching Goods at U.S. Malls Is a Rite of Passage

You'd better be a good seller, if you’re not already working as a mover. And make sure you get a work visa. After that, it gets addictive.

Nathan Sheva
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Nathan Sheva

Before doing her army service, Noa, 22, spent six months selling cosmetics in the Caribbean and the United States. The first part of her trip was traumatic.

“Our rooms in the Caribbean were appalling,” she says. “Few people spoke English and I had to struggle in Spanish to sell anything. The products were of poor quality so I hardly earned any money. And in the end I didn’t receive a salary; they even asked me to transfer money to Israel to take care of the work permit.”

The rest went much better. “In California it was completely different. We paid tiny rent at an amazing complex with a pool and fitness room,” Noa says.

“Sometimes we received $5,000 for two weeks of work and sometimes $1,000, depending on how much we sold. These are insane amounts compared with what I could have earned in Israel.”

Noa says she often worked 12-hour days with another hour commuting, but the bosses were usually pleasant – depending on how sales went. The work made everyone greedy.

“Some really went too far,” she says. “One salesgirl would make up stories that her brother was killed in an accident or promise to go out with someone if he bought from her. One customer suddenly broke into tears and the supervisor said this was a good time to push more products her way.”

Meirav, 24, sold cosmetics from a stall in Madrid two years ago but didn’t do nearly as well as Noa. “The work is addictive,” she says. “The pay was based on 30% commissions without any base salary. I lived with two roommates and paid 10 euros a day for accommodations. I began losing money very quickly.”

Aslo, Meirav was disturbed by the manner of selling. “People are sold a bill of goods like 35 euros for a package costing NIS 10. Some don’t care but it bothers me,” she says.

“The work is very hard and continues 12 hours a day. I went to Madrid because I have a European passport entitling me to work there and I was afraid to work illegally in the U.S., but most of those who worked with me in Spain did so illegally – even the boss.”

Starting small

Many young Israelis go abroad for several months before or after their army service to make money. Much of the work is at makeshift stalls, usually at large malls in the United States and Europe, but also in the Far East. The stalls, which often grow into full-fledged stores, carry cosmetics, Dead Sea products, hair straighteners, cellphone accessories and chocolate.

Some of the workers lure passersby by handing out chocolate or champagne. The modus operandi is simple but aggressive; you start by asking people if they have a moment to spare. Then comes a short pitch, a demonstration of the product and a determined effort to close the sale.

Moran Hershkovitz runs, a placement service for young people seeking overseas jobs. He estimates that more than 30,000 Israelis go abroad each year to work, with 75% staffing stalls or stores. One out of every three end up in the United States.

Other popular tasks for young Israelis across the Atlantic are locksmithing and working for moving companies. They also clean air-conditioning ducts and carpets. Other niche jobs include operating ice cream vans and working in Alaskan fisheries. In New Zealand and Australia they work on farms and as fruit pickers.

The list of jobs offered on the Web is long, with ads mentioning pay of $4,000 to $8,000 a month through sales, even though few will make that much. “Don’t rush to answer offers that sound too tempting,” warns Dovrat Granat, a jobs counselor for young people. “It could be that employee turnover at the business is high and it probably won’t work out.”

Like the tactics on the job, the recruitment method is well oiled. Less than a minute after filling in my personal information, I received a telephone offer to work in Singapore. “You should ask friends where they worked and what they recommend,” says Granat. “After that you should compare the offers of the placement agencies.” She suggests only working where it’s legal.

Many young people don’t take out a valid work permit or visa. Some think they won’t be abroad long enough to get caught, or that immigration officials won’t bother to go after them. Others are completely oblivious that such an approach is a crime. “Some firms promise to try to obtain work permits through the embassy as a way to lure them, but that’s often impossible,” says Granat.

Attorney Dotan Cohen, who specializes in immigration and relocation, says every country requires a work permit. In the United States, for example, foreign workers need an H-2B visa if they don’t have citizenship or a U.S. passport. The H-2B covers temporary work lasting several months.

It’s the employer who files for the visa, which is subject to a number of requirements including the employer’s inability to recruit enough local workers. A J-1 visa allows young women between 18 and 26 to work taking care of children for up to two years; it’s also used for counselors at summer camps.

In Europe, sometimes a European passport isn’t enough. For example, chances that young people without an education will be allowed into Germany to work are slim. In Australia, Israelis are only allowed to work in agriculture, and only for three to six months.

Do it clean

Many countries have toughened their conditions for work permits during the global economic crisis, says Cohen. “Countries want experts in their field, people with higher education, and people who speak the language,” he says.

“You have to watch out for companies that promise young people business visas, because these are actually meant for short visits like business meetings. There were periods when this trick was used in the United States. It’s absolutely not a work visa.”

And there are consequences. Attorney Zvi Kan-Tor says young people don’t take the consequences of working illegally into account. “Illegal workers in the U.S. can be denied tourist visas for 10 years and sometimes for life. It’s not pleasant for a 40-year-old high-tech worker to have to admit not being able to travel to the U.S. because he worked 20 years earlier illegally in a sales booth,” he says.

“Some countries exchange information on illegal workers .... In Europe they can arrest an illegal worker for between two days and two months and expel him. They can even bar his entry into the country for up to 10 years. Fines can be in the thousands of euros. Wiping the slate clean is a long, expensive legal process.”

Anyone with a work visa still has to obey local laws; this includes paying taxes, notes Yehuda Almog, who runs the Ingo Recruit placement center for young Israelis.

The chances of success once you get there depends on how much you’re willing to put in. “It’s hard to say exactly, but about two-thirds of Israelis going abroad quit relatively fast when they discover that the work doesn’t suit them,” says Almog. “The first two or three weeks are hard, and it takes time to get the swing of things. Work overseas isn’t for the pampered. Not everyone can do it.”

Hershkovitz sees things differently. “Today there’s much less of a wild west in sales, so the dropout rates are lower than in the past. The way young people are treated has also changed,” he says.

“The company pays for the flight and someone’s waiting for them with a sign at the airport. They get a day off to acquaint themselves with the area, living accommodations, a training course and advanced training. If the company invests heavily, it won’t rush to recruit just anyone.”

Shoppers walk around the Mall of America in Bloomington, Minnesota, U.S., on Saturday, Feb. 25, 2012.Credit: Bloomberg

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