Ethiopian Immigrants Earning 30%-40% Less Than Arabs

Ethiopian immigrants without work experience are worst-paid group, unseating Arab Israelis, a new study finds.

Ethiopian immigrants without work experience have unseated Arab Israelis for the title of the lowest-earning group in Israeli society, a new study has found.

The research, conducted by Dr. Erez Siniver, chairman of the School of Economics at the College of Management, Academic Studies and Prof. Gil Epstein of Bar-Ilan University, is based on Central Bureau of Statistics data from 2010. It compares earnings data for people with 12 years of schooling or less.

David Bachar

Our True Face / Black Isn't in Fashion

Albeit full of good intentions, Israel made every possible mistake when it came to integrating the Ethiopians of Operation Solomon.

It wasn't long ago that bold and proud newspaper headlines marked the 20th anniversary of Operation Solomon, the second major drive to bring Ethiopia's Jews to Israel. Drawing comparisons to the exodus from Egypt, some 15,000 Africans dressed in white descended from Israel Defense Forces planes, filling Israeli hearts with pride. But since then, the now-100,000 strong community doesn't appear to have many reasons to be proud.

Albeit full of good intentions, Israel made every possible mistake when it came to integrating the Ethiopians. True, they weren't placed in transit camps or sprayed with DDT; but dumping villagers in urban neighborhoods with no regard for how they'd earn a living, and all the while trampling the honor of their community leaders, quickly turned them into society's weakest group - weaker even than Israeli Arabs. The very bottom.

Yes, there are some success stories, including MKs, a senior Israel Broadcasting Authority manager, lawyers, one prominent journalist and academics such as Asher Elias, who launched a technology college; but these are the exceptions to the rule, and the rule looks entirely different.

Ethiopian immigrant families, crushed by bureaucracy, helpless and entirely dependent on the state, aren't creating a basis for success for the next generation. They're struggling with the language, they're not integrating into the school system, and they're watching their parents fade away and lose basic authority. And how can a child from a religious household who is constantly being told that he's not religious enough, that he can't play or learn with children whose skin color is different, gain the self assurance required to succeed? It's easier just to drop out, particularly when no one is watching out for you.

Military service is a springboard, but most Ethiopian girls don't serve because they're religious; and as children from poor families, they become cleaners or supermarket clerks - and the cycle starts anew.

One may say that this is the fate of every wave of immigration. And it's true, but this wave has one thing you can't ignore - a particular skin color.

A young Ethiopian woman recently told me a familiar story: "I called a clothing store about a job, and everything sounded fine by phone, so I showed up," she related. "One glance from the store's owner, however, and I knew I didn't have a chance."

There are a thousand variations of this story. Here, in one of the world's most heterogeneous societies, black has never been in fashion.

Israeli racism is blatant and ugly, but members of the Ethiopian community don't always help themselves. Ethiopian culture rejects arrogance and pride. Young community members will never praise themselves, and they'd have trouble passing various headhunter tests. Due to their background, they'll also do less well on standardized tests like the psychometry, and if they don't receive appropriate guidance, they'll keep on following the behavioral patterns they learned at home - such as going to every community funeral, even at the expense of work hours.

Wise employers will figure out how to give them appropriate acceptance tests, will encourage them to speak their minds, and will be patient with them at first. This isn't a moral issue, but rather a financial one - with a bit of help, a company can benefit from workers of different backgrounds who bring along different ways of thinking.

Israel's economic bon ton has declared that the country's growth engine are the Arab and ultra-Orthodox sectors, and tends to ignore entirely people with disabilities, as well as the small Ethiopian community, which has turned into a social time bomb. But this isn't fate. Awareness and enlightened employers can reverse this.

When they first enter the work force, Ethiopian immigrants earn 30% to 40% less than Arabs with the same number of years of schooling, found the researchers. After 17 years of work experience, Ethiopians manage to pass their Arab counterparts. Ethiopian women start outearning Arab women after 20 years, while Ethiopian men pass Arab men after 10 years.

A 36-year-old Arab man with nine years of schooling and 21 years of work experience earned an average of NIS 171 a day in 2010, while a 33-year-old Ethiopian man with six years of schooling and 20 years of work experience earned an average of NIS 137, the study found.

Furthermore, Arabs earn a higher return on secondary-school education than Ethiopians: Every additional year of non-college education enables an Arab to earn an additional 3% more than an Ethiopian with the same education.

Yet Ethiopians earn more from workforce experience than Arabs do, Siniver said. "When you consider work experience, you see that for every year of experience, an Ethiopian immigrant earns more than an Arab. The wage gaps between Ethiopians and Arabs shrink by 2.5% a year."

Ethiopian women were slower to catch up with their Arab counterparts, Siniver added, most likely because Ethiopian women had more trouble finding work.

Erez Siniver and Gil Epstein, 2012

The top-earning group in Israeli society is native-born Israeli Jews, followed by immigrants from the former Soviet Union. Arab Israelis were in third place, said Siniver.

Arabs had ranked last through the 1980s and 1990s, but now that's changed. "Thanks to the Ethiopian immigration, Arabs are no longer at the bottom of the wage scale," he said.

Why are Ethiopians the country's worst-paid workers?

Siniver says the problem begins with their numbers. While there are 1.5 million Arab Israelis, there are only 140,000 Ethiopians. Thus, Arabs can employ each other. Ethiopians, in comparison, cannot rely on their community connections in order to find jobs, simply because there are fewer jobs available within the community.

"New immigrants face two main obstacles - cultural gaps and the concentration of workplaces [within specific communities]," Siniver said. "With the Russian immigration, for instance, there were cultural difficulties, but due to the fact that there were 1 million immigrants, they were able to employ each other, which broke the concentration of workplaces [in other sectors]. This happens in the Arab community as well. The Ethiopian community isn't large enough to form a network of workplaces."

Yet Siniver and Epstein said they were surprised by their findings. "If you look at the United States, the best-paid group is native-born white men, followed by white immigrants, then black immigrants and finally native-born blacks," Siniver noted. "That's generally explained by stating that the people who tend to immigrate are the best workers who can rely on their skills, who also have more motivation, and thus tend to earn more. We expected to see the same pattern in Israel, but we were proven wrong."

The research didn't prove that Ethiopians faced more discrimination than Arabs, he added. "We don't know who faces more discrimination. Both groups are subject to discrimination, but for different reasons: Jews discriminate against Arabs for nationalist reasons, while Ethiopians are subjected to discrimination due to their skin color and society's aversion to differences," he said.

Asked to explain why Ethiopians pass Arabs after 17 years of work experience, Siniver said that initially, the job market placed more value on Arab workers.

"I presume that employers of Ethiopian workers slowly discover, after the workers have proven themselves and the employers are no longer afraid to have them on staff, that it's not that bad. They advance and start earning more," he said.

In order to combat workplace discrimination, the state needed to invest in tolerance education and do away with Ethiopian-only schools, Siniver suggested.