Palestinian employment: The phantom workers of Israel

An estimated 30,000 Palestinian laborers work in Israel without permits, in predominantly labor intensives jobs. Pay is poor, social rights are virtually nonexistent, and conditions in the workplace are often hazardous. A group of Palestinian workers tell their story from a construction site in Petah Tikva.

By Alon Aviram

“This place is a luxury penthouse” said Faisal, 26, a builder from Hebron, as he looked out across the lit city-scape of Petah Tikva. Industrial waste was strewn across the floor, tools were propped up against walls and dust hung in the air on the tenth floor of the construction site. “ We’ve stayed in so many penthouses, you wouldn’t believe it!” He said grinning.

The shell of a building, in which Faisal stood, is a workplace as well as a temporary home for him and the five other young men in the room. They’ve lived this life on countless construction sites across the country. The lack of a kettle didn’t diminish their ability to be hospitable. A makeshift immersion heater was placed in a bucket, bringing water to the boil. Coffee was served, the men spoke, and a shisha pipe was passed around. There isn’t much else to do in the evenings in this hazardous, claustrophobic and male dominated environment. Similarly to the other estimated 30,000 Palestinian workers without work permits in Israel, these laborers are confined to building sites day and night for fear of being arrested.

Palestinian employment: The phantom workers of Israel
Workers use an immersion heater to boil water. (2011)
(photo: Ron Amir)

“Every two weeks or so the police come and detain us. They take us to the checkpoint and send us back into the West Bank. It’s their way of telling us whose boss. But they know we’ll just make our way back in,” said Faisal. Israeli NGO Kav LaOved reports that when workers are apprehended, they are usually transported back into the West Bank. But workers can also be indicted. Sentences usually include three months in jail and a police preclusion for three years, barring them from entering and working in Israel lawfully. Basem has had numerous run-ins with the police for working without a permit, but he spoke of how in his experience, no contractor had been penalized for employing illegal workers. He said that this was partly as a result of workers not naming their employers out of fear of being blacklisted.

Israeli photographer, Ron Amir, has a long and close relationship with this particular group of workers. He initially met them while documenting the lives of illegal workers for an exhibition, and subsequently became a friend. Ron described how Palestinian construction workers usually find employment through a long chain of middlemen. Workers are initially hired by a subcontractor from their own village, who is then recruited by a series of other contractors within Israel. Ron claimed that this structure is geared towards obscuring the complicity of Israeli firms in employing illegal workers. This in turn diminishes the prospect of the general contractor being held legally accountable. As Kav LaOved reports, the incentive for employing a Palestinian without a work permit is high. The cost of employing a Palestinian worker with a permit is about 70% higher than employing one without a permit (210 versus 124 shekels respectively).

Palestinian employment: The phantom workers of Israel
(Photo: Ron Amir)

Basem, 25, is from Ramallah, 23 miles away. Yet it takes him at least a day to reach Petah Tikva. “To get here, I have to travel to the south of the West Bank, near Hebron, cross over by foot through the countryside, and then make my way up carefully in a minivan with some other workers to wherever the contractor wants us.” Faisal only lives one hour drive away, but the difficulty of travelling without a work permit means that “I’m only home to see my family for one or two months of the year,” he said.

Israeli labor laws states that every worker in Israel is entitled to the full range of social rights regardless of whether or not they have a permit. Despite this, primary research by NGOs such as Kav LaOved and Gisha suggest that Israeli employers systematically abuse the rights of Palestinian and immigrant workers, particularly those without permits.

Basem didn’t seem phased by the dangers in his line of work. He spoke of a 22 year old Palestinian worker who died this past November after falling off a construction site in Netanya. No charges have as of yet, been lodged against the contractor of the dead worker. Suheib Zayud, 19, fell from a construction site in 2011, he remains in a coma. His contractor denied that he had ever employed Suheib. As a result, the worker’s family received no financial compensation, and have been burdened with all the medical expenses. This case, as well as others before it, suggest that the contractor of the fatally injured worker in Netanya, is unlikely to face legal ramifications.

The work conditions of illegal workers are often substandard, with legally required on-site security and safety conditions systematically neglected. As Kav LaOved reports, in past cases of work-related accidents involving illegal workers, employers have denied any connection to the employee. The lack of a permit and official documentation mean that the employee is unlikely to be able to prove their eligibility for compensation from the National Insurance Institute. A lack of official documentation, and workers commonly receiving cash in hand from subcontractors, makes employees more susceptible to exploitation, and increases the difficulty of proving a violation of rights in labor courts.

Palestinian employment: The phantom workers of Israel
(Photo: Ron Amir)

At the end of 2011, a total of 27,000 Palestinians were legally working in Israel, predominantly in construction and agriculture.  According to a publication issued by the Association of Builders in Israel in 2011, the sector needs 20,000 more workers. Numerous Israeli contractors have reported that they are consistently short of construction workers.

There appears to be a discrepancy between the number of permits issued for Palestinian workers and the demand of Israeli employers’. When questioned, the men in the room in Petah Tikva claimed that they were not eligible for permits because they were too young. In the past, legal work for Palestinians in Israel was readily available. One of the many conditions currently required of Palestinians in order to legally obtain a permit, is that they must be a married father and over the age of 35. Israeli security agencies argue that young men without a family represent a greater potential threat to the state.

Yet somehow, the sophisticated Israeli security complex fails to stop many workers without permits coming into Israel. Tens of thousands of Palestinian laborers currently work illegally in Israel. They live and work in dangerous conditions and are often exploited by their employers. They earn less than their already poorly paid peers with permits, making them a source of cheap and highly profitable labor for Israeli markets. Basem made his intentions clear. “I’m done with this life. As soon as I’ve sent enough money back to my family, and saved a few thousand shekels for myself, I’m going to go back to my village. I’ll get married, and I’ll have some kids.”

(The names in this article have been changed in order to conceal identities)

The Wall, 10 years on / part 8: A working class under siege