Israeli Arab Women Dream of the Minimum Wage

More than 10,000 Arab women work in agriculture through local labor contractors who pay them about NIS 100 per day for eight to 10 hours of work.

A protest in Tel Aviv last Friday was called to highlight one of the greatest disgraces in Israel - the widespread use of poorly paid contract labor. But some workers are even worse off than the garden-variety contract laborers: At the bottom of the Israeli labor scale are the Arab women known as "rais workers."

The rais, Arabic for "boss," is a kind of local labor contractor. He collects the women early in the morning in his van for harvest work. They go home after eight, sometimes 10, hours with NIS 100 to NIS 115 in their pockets, a lot less than the minimum wage. Sometimes, to create a facade of legality, they are given a pay slip that has no connection to their actual days of work.

Naifa Yunis Ma’ara, Faiza Awasit - Alon Ron - 02112011
Alon Ron

The phenomenon is widespread: According to social activists, more than 10,000 Arab women are rais workers. Their willingness to do work that pays so poorly is proof that while the proportion of Arab women who work is quite low, only 22 percent, this isn't because they don't want to work, but because there is a lack of available jobs.

In Baka al-Gharbiyeh last Thursday, I met three women who are trying to escape this humiliating occupation. They are angry that the rais packs them into the van like cattle when the seats are already filled. Despite the grim topic, Faiza Awasit couldn't help but laugh and be jolly, until the photographer had to ask her to don a serious face. Naifa Yunis Ma'ara was wearing festive purple. R. was afraid of the contractor.

Faiza was the most talkative of them. "There are no rights at all with the rais," she said. "The pay is pennies. They are always exploiting us. But when there isn't any other work, I go back. What can I do? I need money. I get NIS 12 an hour. I once said to the contractor that I should be getting NIS 180 a day, and he told me, 'There are no arguments here.'"

Wafa Tiyara, who was a rais worker six years ago, is trying to find a better job with the help of Maan, the Workers Advice Center, but hasn't succeeded. These are women whose fantasy is to earn the minimum wage.

Where are the Arab MKs?

"The minimum wage is the maximum," explained Tiyara. "The contractors party, and then they say they are doing us a favor by finding work for the girls. I can't compete with the cheap labor. It's like there are tomatoes for NIS 13 and for NIS 22.50, so you take the cheaper ones.

"The government says it wants to encourage Arab women [to work], but it turns a blind eye to the conditions. If there were public transportation, industrial zones and supervision, this phenomenon would disappear. They don't talk about this in the Arab community, either. I want to know why the Arab MKs are keeping their mouths shut. If men were being exploited, that wouldn't happen."

Friday morning, Tiyara led a march of women who work in agriculture down Tel Aviv's Rothschild Boulevard. The day before, she asked the women who would come.

R. was embarrassed to say she wouldn't. The olive harvest was in full swing, and she was afraid of losing the work, even though she knows she is being exploited.

Faiza suddenly decided she would come. "All this time they have been exploiting us," she said. "We are human beings; it's wrong to exploit us. We have our dignity. We have to make an earthquake."

The bosses are not pleased with Tiyara's work among the women. The contractor who used to employ her advised her to calm down. "At first he spoke to me nicely and asked me not to talk to the workers about jobs," she said. "When this didn't work, he started to threaten. He once told my children, 'your mother better watch out.'"

The stories are tragic. R. decided to work against her husband's wishes. After a month of hard work, the contractor did not pay her at all. She was afraid to say anything about this, lest her husband say he had been right to advise her to stay home.

Tiyara told of a woman who was injured by a tractor. "No one acknowledged it. The contractor came to her house, drank coffee and said 'don't make trouble. Do me a favor - I've done you a favor.'"

Naifa: "I worked for two years harvesting at a moshav; it's the same thing. Even though it wasn't through a rais, but through the Jewish owner [of the contracting firm]. He gave NIS 115 for eight hours of work. The contractor got used to paying like the rais. They learn from each other how to exploit the workers. I am fed up. The minimum wage is increasing, but not for us."

Faiza: "The contractors are always threatening: 'You don't want to work - there are Thais. You are spoiled.' The Thais are also exploited. They get NIS 13 an hour and I can't compete with them. I feel like a spare tire."

I ask Assaf Adiv of Maan, which is helping the women, whether the kibbutzniks and moshavniks know they are party to exploitation. "It's a known secret," he replied. "There are people who tell me, 'I am ashamed, it's right here in my backyard.' But this is a small minority among the farmers. Here and there you find people with a conscience."

"He thinks we are slaves," R. said angrily of her rais. "When one of us raised her head during the flower harvest, he made her bend over." And then she asked me not to write any details that would disclose who the rais is. "I don't want problems."