In a Temporary State of Mind

Nurit Wurgaft
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Nurit Wurgaft

"We Are All Contract Workers" Eretz Acheret: Issue No. 53 Edited by Bambi Sheleg, 98 pages, NIS 50 (Hebrew )

In reading the most recent issue of Eretz Acheret, the journal each of whose bimonthly issues is dedicated to a single aspect of Israeli life, I tried to recall when I was last exposed to weighty documentation of the exploitation of workers in Israel. These are not the kinds of stories that make headlines. Stories about pension allocations that were never deposited or vacation pay that went unpaid have all the sex appeal of a characterless union official, and a recent Haaretz report about a bill seeking to license temporary-labor companies in an effort to reduce their criminal conduct and harmful employment practices, seems to make little impression. Have we grown so accustomed to illegal employment practices that no one cares about them anymore?

Eretz Acheret contends that it is not trite, in part because the same methods used by the labor contractors are also helping universities and other institutions create a cheap and compliant professional labor force for themselves.

These exploitation methods are exposed when a small group of workers who no longer have anything to lose (or who do have something to lose, but don't know it yet ) go on strike or hold a protest. Usually, the event ends with a few nice photos of people holding signs, a close-up of a worried face, a hand wiping away a tear. It's a nice arrangement for everyone: The workers have the (mistaken ) impression that someone cares, the politicians get a grandstanding forum, and the folks sitting in front of the television are comforted in thinking "thank goodness it isn't us."

But it is us. According to Eretz Acheret, being a temporary worker is a mental state, not merely a function of a labor contract. In his article about academics in non-tenure-track positions, Aryeh Dayan quotes Dr. Esther Sarouk, who teaches at the Hebrew University of Jerusalem. Sarouk explains that those who, like her, fill the fragile position of adjunct lecturer feel as if they are contract workers. "Intelligent contract workers," she says, "with doctorates, who teach at a university and at times manage to engage in a little research, but none of us can be certain if the class he is teaching will be given next semester."

Itty-bitty bites

Being a contract worker means knowing that collective wage agreements and labor laws are unable to protect you. Being a contract worker means choosing not to look too carefully at your pay stub, so as not to become exasperated. In an article by Roni Abulafia, Hannah Zohar, the director of the workers rights advocacy group Kav La'Oved, says that the temp agencies "take itty-bitty bites from every worker," and that these add up to a significant amount. "An employee won't go to court for the sake of these itty-bitty bites," says Zohar. "He'll feel petty even asking for them."

In fact, the cumulative impression left by the articles in this particular issue is that contract workers won't go to court -- not because they would feel petty, but because they are afraid. The bottom line is, being a contract worker means living in constant fear of being fired, knowing that you are the least important resource in the system and the easiest to replace. Therefore, contract workers are forgiving when their employers fail to adequately compensate them for overtime hours, or make them work on the Sabbath and holidays, because they prefer exploitative employment to unemployment.

Being a contract worker also means understanding that even if you put yourself on the line and gain exposure in a documentary film like "White Gold -- Black Work" or "Strike" (about the exploitation of factory workers in southern Israel and their fight for better conditions ), it is practically a given that even if the struggle miraculously succeeds, you yourself will be dismissed (as happened to the heroes of the abovementioned films ).

This issue of Eretz Acheret doesn't pull any punches. Article after article describes in depressing detail the exploitation of Palestinians, women, migrant laborers and academics. The subtitle makes it clear that what is happening here is "theft of the rights of workers in Israel" -- in other words, not only those employed by temp agencies. The cover is designed accordingly, in black and white, but mainly black.

Is this as bad as it gets? In Israeli terms, one can certainly hope that from here on the situation will only get better. But one has only to read the article by Micha Odenheimer about 4- and 5-year-old children working in brick-production factories in Nepal to understand that, in global terms, there is no boundary to exploitation.

Why is it worth reading this issue? Not only to see the big picture that makes this employment reality possible, but also to remember that things can be different. Who should read it? Contract workers, other workers who lack job security, and even their employers, who can make good use of the guide to breaking up unions, which reads, in part: "Give your employees just enough rope to think that they are not tied to a leash." Employers and other readers will also learn about the cost of cheap labor. For instance, one should not expect a lecturer -- whose livelihood largely hinges on the goodwill of his students, who rate him at the end of each semester -- to raise the bar of academic requirements in his course.

Another reason to read this issue is the beautiful stories of bravery it tells, such as that of the janitorial staff at Ben-Gurion University, who set up a workers committee, and that of the Koach La Ovdim-Democratic Workers' Organization, which was established by waiters in a coffee shop and is increasingly showing itself to be an alternative to the Histadrut labor federation. These two stories, and a few comments that transcend the atmosphere of despair and depression that hovers over the entire issue, show that perhaps all is not lost. That is something, too.

Nurit Wurgaft is an editor at Haaretz Hebrew Edition.

Haaretz Books, February 2010,