Cheap commodities: Documenting the struggles of Israel’s cashiers

Tahel Frosh weaves together acts of generosity and economic brutality, paper bags and plastic bags in a deconstruction of the new documentary ‘Super Women.’

By Tahel Frosh (Translated from Hebrew by Yoav Kleinfeld)

Cheap commodities: Documenting the struggles of Israel's cashiers
A still from the film “Super Women.”

*Translator’s Note – as the Hebrew differentiates between feminine and masculine in profession names, “Cashier” is always used here in the feminine. The same goes for TV “Researchers,” used later as an analogy. 

Super Women,” an important documentary by Ronen Zaretzky and Yael Kipper, chronicles the day-to-day reality of five cashiers working at the Mega supermarket in Ramat Aviv: Nela, the head cashier, Yulia, Mayuchka, Levana and Ela. The film follows them at their work place – with brief interludes outside – and it is the source for the following glossary.

Work (workspace): Captivity.

The workspace is a zone of captivity where fundamental freedoms are withheld. Freedom of movement for the workers is restricted, and the same goes for their freedom of expression. Their own personal time – their free time – is spent at the enclosure’s nether regions, in storage rooms or the back of the store. In their captivity the workers stare ahead with gloomy, vacant eyes, calculating money in their head – how much will it cover and what won’t it.

Yulia is very emotional, her green eyes are tearing because she can’t find any way to scrape together more money. Mayuchka’s eyes may be dry, but they’re heavily painted, like a starlet washed up, relegated to a chair behind a register. Nela’s fervent eyes stare bravely ahead; she has a child with special needs to take care of, and she is the only thing standing in the way between a troop of cashiers and miserable hunger. She is the liaison between the authorities of captivity and its subjects, while a subject herself. With captivity comes its rules and penal code: a sign posted inside the cashiers’ break room instructs the employees to use only milk from plastic bags, not from cartons, and “those who disobey – shall be punished!”.

Man: work agent, product agent; trauma victim.

The name of the man who runs the store and its women is Nathan (in Hebrew – “Giver”) – a walking paradox; being the obedient lackey of chain owners Dudi Wiessman and Shraga Biran, his role is mostly concerned with “taking.” He sits huddled in his room, announcing various sales over the store’s PA system. His mechanical voice ringing through the aisles serves as a constant, oppressing reminder of the place, this workspace that also happens to be a staggering hall of plenty with abundant food, a symbol of Western culture, and the site of multi-directional oppression of people, these women and others, for profit.

Nathan is a lackluster spokesperson for occult management meetings, after which he summons Nela to inform her of management decisions to cut shifts, personnel, wages, to have random tests, and so on. Remarkably, Nela ceaselessly interrupts him to point out the stupidity of these decisions, and he resorts to corporate language for explanations. Nela takes this corporate lingo and shreds it into pieces with her everyday language, but time and again the corporation always prevails.

The only male among the cashiers is an Israeli with a mental disability, whose troubled mind is calmed by the movement on the register’s conveyor belt. His character drives the point that no “normal” man would ever take the job, because it’s the role itself that makes the woman, or the female status, and is therefore risky for a man. A third man makes a brief appearance, like a figure taken from another drama. He is the African cleaner of the store, the lowliest member of this micro caste system.

Money: Freedom. (No-money: bonds)

Yulia sparks the charged atmosphere, always throwing economic brutality into sharp relief. She has a boy who went through circumcision at 13, and now she can’t afford his Bar-Mitzvah. But it’s not just that, she draws an all too familiar picture of the real ratio between salary and rent, healthcare and education costs. She reminds us of those who have no financial support, with no one to rely on but themselves.

The language of money in the film is the language of no-money. Not one of them has enough, and it is the cause of their captivity. The regular exchange between Nela and Nathan, the store manager, is so hopelessly ridiculous that it can’t help turning into comedic farce; after he delivers a fresh blow from the latest management meeting – another cut in shifts, meaning less money – she asks him to explain, “Why would any cashier work in the Co-op?” (The chain took over and re-branded the historic cooperative market chain). He answers: “Why? Because it’s all she knows.” It’s an obviously twisted answer. Money shortage makes for strict rules, bonds and an iron chain. If they had money, no cashier would be in this captivity, but they can’t cash out.

And in this dismal setting, acts of generosity become a matter of routine: Mayuchka gives Yulia the money she needs, and Nela offers to do the same. This giving is not an act of charity, but of camaraderie and a common plight. And in this capitalist reality where property is everything, it is also an act of defiance.

Vacation: Mending; Curse.

At the beginning of the film, Yulia announces her plan to take a vacation in order to see a doctor. The meaning of “vacation” is misleading. It turns out that for the working woman, “vacation” is time meant for mending and rehabilitating body and mind from the damages of captivity. It is used for treatments, doctor appointments, and sometimes for spiritual healing. For workers who receive the minimum vacation time allowed by law – 10 paid days a year, and only for a full-time job – we’re not talking anymore about the kind of touristic vacation that gets an interesting treatment by Michel Houellebecq. Such vapid, all-inclusive, two-week tour deals, of luxury cruise ships and hopes of redeeming the pains of a meaningless life through the bodies of third-world sex workers; such vacation literature may be written in France with its broad net of social benefits, but not in Israel.

On the other hand, time off work – unpaid vacation – is a curse. It is a grievous verdict that means even less money. Yulia asks Nela for more shifts, and even after Nela warns her it might break her (both physically and mentally), she insists.

Woman: A cheap commodity; Everyday language.

“Cashiers are a cheap commodity,” Nela tells Nathan after he informs her of a management decision not to allow tenure for cashiers, because “no one is going to pay for you to work.”  But it’s not only cashiers who are a cheap commodity – women in general are cheap commodities, and as the film demonstrates, female immigrants from the former Soviet bloc are particularly commoditized. Paying women well never enters consideration: from domestic work to nursing and service providers, all the professions where women are a clear majority, and all the professions where women have staked a claim, have been systematically eroded to the point of financial disgrace. This is why women without financial support – without a husband or father to lean on for money – are under constant threat.

At the same time, femininity in this film is a joie de vivre. Mayuchka – who can’t retire because she needs the money – has diva mannerisms, with a heavily painted porcelain face and purple headphones playing Julio Iglesias. Her arsenal of makeup mirror and pencils are weapons to use against her jailors and captivity. The speech of women in this film is not only a Russian foreign to Hebrew, but a language that doesn’t belong to labor and consumer affairs – it is a sensuous, funny and sad language; it is emotional. It seems the greater their oppression at work, the more their words in the peripheral zones of “free time” fiercely and directly express the laughter and sorrow that is part of their trials, and their feelings of love, friendship and sacrifice.

Child: A function of money (and identity).

“He will always be without things,” Yulia says of her boy. She doesn’t want him to go to school in Tel Aviv, to spare him having his poverty so glaringly obvious. “What is more important to you – me or the money?” She recalls him asking her. She told him that of course he is more important, and he answered: “I asked you to be honest!” She and Nela laugh, a laughter of despair. What is more important: the boy or the money? Clearly being able to afford having kids comes first. For this reason Yulia will not have a child with her current partner, and there were children money did not permit to be born during filming, hovering as potentialities never to come to be.

Struggle: A car sticker; A distant third-person occurrence on Channel 2.

There is a strange unspoken void in the film regarding the cashiers’ struggle for better working conditions. The struggle is represented at the end of the film by a car sticker telling us that Nela is campaigning to be head of the cashiers’ union, a union unheard of up until that moment. At the very end we are told she lost and came second. This void was an editing ploy to simulate what often happens in the media: a revolt is taking place, workers are struggling, but no one is covering it.

A wretched example for how worker struggles are portrayed in the media was available in a Channel 2 news item about Zaretzky and Kipper’s film. Instead of tying the cashiers’ plight to a systematic flaw in the market, to worker exploitation everywhere, the news item made sure to shelter viewers and separate them from a labor situation they may very well suffer from. The narrator describes the women as “Russian immigrants” who “have to take two buses to arrive in Tel Aviv.” Our protagonists were so far removed from the general public, as if they were outsiders and their suffering was not our own. It reached the point of absurdity when Keshet (one of Channel 2’s concessionaires) tried reaching the CEO of Mega Retail, but “even our researcher Reut could get no comment.” Those who have been inside a newsroom know that “researcher” is code for poor working conditions, which are abundant in the field. Throw a crumpled ball of paper in a newsroom and it will likely bounce off a couple of exploited workers, which are replaced frequently without any job security to speak of. The same text about the cashiers could be recycled to fit Channel 2 researchers, so here’s to you – Reut: What about the working conditions for TV researchers, and how do Keshet owners sleep at night the way they treat their workers? Would they let their own daughters go through the same?

Furthermore, the owners of Mega Retail, Dudi Wiessman and Shraga Biran, were not once mentioned by name in the item (neither in the film), and there was also no mention of their fortune, estimated at hundreds of millions (NIS), a fortune whose manner of being made is exposed in the film. Maybe this should not come as a surprise, when Keshet have already delayed a report on Nochi Dankner following an intervention by Mozi (Moshe) Wertheim, who holds a controlling interest in the channel.

Monkey: Person; Toy.

Near the end of the film the fierce and emotional Yulia is seen talking with brave and kind Nela. Yulia tells Nela of the day she went to the zoo with her son and found herself standing outside the monkey cage. She says there was a monkey there, who sat and stared. He just stared at people, who were outside the cage making noise and pointing at him while he sat there gloomy, troubled, with a small fountain nearby splashing water. “And I was lost in his eyes,” she says and adds, “we are like that monkey.” Later they say, “It’s scary how they play with us like toys.”

This article was first published in Hebrew on Haokets.