'There Is No Place for Zionism in the Real Estate Industry'

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Finance Minister Silvan Shalom harshly criticized the developers of the Trans-Israel Highway for the number of foreign workers he saw working on the highway when he toured the area on Monday. "It is insufferable that at a time when unemployment in Israel has reached 250,000, there are close to 300,000 foreign workers," he said, adding that he feels Israelis should be given preference in all fields before foreigners are hired.

Udi Savyon, general manager of Derech Eretz, the company that is building the highway, has tended to explain that the number of Israelis working on the highway is actually greater than the number of foreigners. The Association of Contractors and Builders (ACB) was outraged by this statement, as were sources throughout the construction industry. "There is no room for Zionism in the real estate industry," said the sources. "Israelis are not willing to do construction work and the industry is desperate for workers."

Companies involved in the construction and infrastructure industries, including contracting and transportation companies, say that the allocation of foreign workers to construction companies is one of the most pressing issues in the industry, particularly in light of the government's policy to reduce as much as possible the number of work permits granted to foreigners. The companies object strenuously to this policy and claim that the industry is crying out for workers due to the absence of Palestinian laborers and the fact that Israelis are mostly unwilling to do construction work. "The lack of able hands causes lengthy delays in many projects," added the sources.

The ACB estimates that the construction industry is currently short 10,000 workers. Sources in the industry said that in order to complete the building and infrastructure projects they need about 40,000 workers and that the current number of workers is somewhere between 30,000 to 35,000. The ACB believes that of the 4,200 projects granted construction permits in the past two years, construction on 1,500 of them has been stalled for lack of workers. Many contracting companies that have signed contracts to undertake projects are in deep trouble due to a lack of manpower.

The ACB also claims that some projects that should have been completed in 2000-2001 are not yet finished and contractors are being fined because of the delays. Some of these fines are in the millions of shekels.

The Employment Service allocates workers according to set guidelines. In 2001, 6.8 foreign workers were allocated for every 1,000 square meters (10,800 square feet) in residential and institutional construction projects and 3.5 foreign workers per 1,000 square meters for industrial projects. The allocation of foreign workers for infrastructure projects is in accordance with the value of the project - 1 worker for every $250,000.

The companies are not always happy with the allocations they receive. A prospectus from Bank Leumi, for example, indicates that Danya Cebus received preferential treatment from the Employment Services in the handling of its request for visas for foreign workers in 2002. Danya is short 600 to 1,000 workers and claims that it was promised more workers after submitting an appeal regarding its 2001 allocation, which it contended was considerably lower than what it should have received. The Employment Services denied Danya's allegations, declaring that it did not favor any contracting company.

For the past six months the ACB has been waging a campaign against the government's decision to reduce the number of foreign workers in the construction industry. The campaign began in December after the government decided to nearly halve the number of visa allocations for foreign construction workers, from 45,000 to 23,000. At that time the ACB prepared an alternate proposal for a gradual reduction in the number of foreign workers, which would be accompanied by a training program and incentives for Israeli workers. The proposal was rejected and after an application to the High Court of Justice, the Ministry of Labor began to reexamine the needs of the construction industry based on data provided by contractors.

ACB Director General Yehuda Segev said that last week the ministry informed the association that it had completed its examination of the industry's needs and that only 35,000 workers are required - the number already working. The ACB says this decision is also insufficient since it ignores the high number of workers who "disappear".

These are workers with visas who run away from their construction jobs without notice to work elsewhere, in the hotel or restaurant industry. These workers cannot be located and even though the contractors have their passports, they are missing the manpower. Data collected by the ACB indicate that some 10,000 construction workers have disappeared. The ACB claims that even though this number is constantly rising, the police are not enforcing the law that states that workers must be returned to their employers or deported.

Segev says that the government's policy has caused the construction industry to deteriorate. Segev also blames a government decision from two months ago that all new government tenders state that only Israelis be employed in the contract. Even though this decision has not yet been implemented, it still does not provide an alternative to the employment of foreign workers, who are so essential to the industry.

The Ministry of Labor and Social Affairs declined to provide any response to the content of this article.