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WAC: Reclaiming jobs in agriculture

Assaf Adiv


MAARUF ATUR, 68, is an agricultural worker from the village of Rameh in Galilee. For 32 years he worked in one kibbutz. This long period came to an abrupt end in November 2000 when the kibbutz dismissed him, along with his team of ten workers, and replaced them with migrant workers from Thailand. In one blow, Atur and his family lost their source of livelihood, so that the kibbutz could maximize profits.

Claiming that there is no alternative to foreign labor in agriculture, the government continues year after year to increase quotas for the import of workers from Thailand. This policy ignores the thousands of Arab workers, many of them women, who were employed by kibbutzim and other agricultural settlements, and who would go back to work if the opportunity arises. (See box below.)

The point is not to pit local against migrant labor. The issue is capitalist globalization, which exploits international gaps in living conditions in order to maximize profits. Arabs are hit hard, because few of Israel's economic sectors are open to them. They are foreign workers in their own land.

Since the year 2002, the Workers Advice Center has been organizing the return of Arab workers to the construction industry. In February, it widened its sphere of operations to include agriculture. WAC's interest in this field also stems from the fact that agriculture is a traditional place of work for thousands of Arab women.

But let us return to Maaruf Atur. In the summer of 2000, the new kibbutz manager brought in a group of 20 Thai workers and asked Atur to teach them the various tasks. "In November I requested permission to leave for two weeks with the team so that we could take part in our olive harvest," Atur said. "But when we returned to work the manager told me that he was obliged to continue to employ the Thai workers and that he didn't need us at that time. I asked him how it was that he was obligated to the Thais, who came yesterday, and not to us who had been with him for 30 years. Of course he made no answer."

The problems continued. When Atur requested compensation, after he had given the best years of his life and invested great efforts, the kibbutz said it considered him a contractor, not a salaried worker, and therefore it did not owe him anything.

Maaruf Atur filed a complaint with the Labor Courts, which forced the kibbutz to recognize him as having been a salaried worker during eight of the years for purposes of compensation.

Atur's feelings of insult and frustration are evident four years later. "I planted and watered every tree in that kibbutz. Every four years the financial coordinator would change, and the new manager would come to me to learn the secrets of managing the property. The manager of the orchards said to me a few months before I was fired that he felt that the trees wanted me to stay there forever. He knew I was approaching retirement age and stressed that they would need me afterwards too – that he couldn't imagine the plantations without me. Then the new manager, appointed to improve the kibbutz finances, fires me like a shot."

Victims of Discrimination

Maaruf Atur and thousands of other Arab men and women are the victims of a discriminatory government policy. Most of the fertile agricultural land in Galilee, now on long-term government lease to Jewish agricultural collectives, once belonged to Arabs who had worked it for centuries. Israel confiscated more than half of it after the 1948 War. Maaruf Atur himself is the son of refugees from Alfaradeh, near Safed. In 1948 all the village's inhabitants became refugees. Their possessions, including the land, were confiscated and the land distributed among nearby Jewish settlements.

After 1966, when military government ended, thousands of Arabs began agricultural work in the Jewish collectives. "In June we would begin the apple and pear harvest," Maaruf Atur said. "In October we would continue with citrus, which would last till April, then for a number of months we would weed the cotton fields or thin and prune the fruit trees. Today they have no need of us. Only for short periods, at the peak of the harvest – mostly in the summer months – is there a need for Arab workers to supplement the Thais. For most of the year we are simply superfluous."

These simple facts, acknowledged by all in the agricultural branch, do not appear on the public agenda in Israel. The prevailing view in government circles is that there are no Israeli farm laborers. In a report submitted to the Knesset Committee on Foreign Workers (Dec. 28, 2004), the Director-General of the Ministry of Commerce and Industry, Raanan Dinur, stated: "There is no chance that the quota for foreign workers in agriculture will be reduced." He contrasted industry and construction, where the reliance on migrant workers is reversible, with agriculture, where all relevant government bodies have agreed that a reversal would not be financially sound. In other words, if farm workers got a decent wage, the government would have to subsidize agriculture (as it does in many Western countries).

Dinur continued: "I am not going to argue whether or not an Israeli can work in a greenhouse. The fact is, we don't find Israelis working in greenhouses. We think there is a real problem of profitability in agriculture. Our economists also understand that above a certain wage it doesn't pay… Therefore, our main effort must be to move towards types of industry that need fewer foreign workers." (Committee Protocol from the Knesset website: <>)

This statement contradicts the facts. Clearly, Mr. Dinur is talking about Jewish Israelis and turns his back – the government's back – on Maaruf Atur and many other Arabs who were shunted out of their jobs. Moreover, this approach contradicts the  official policy, which since 2002 has been to increase employment among local workers by diminishing the number of migrants.

In the construction industry, by contrast, migrant-worker quotas were reduced from 45,000 in 2001 to 17,500 in 2005. In agriculture during the same period, the quota increased from 20,000 to 26,000. At one point, in order to keep Israelis competitive, the government imposed a fee on employers for each migrant worker. This measure is only partly applied in agriculture. Employers in construction must pay 4000 shekels (NIS: New Israeli Shekels) for a permit to employ a migrant worker. In agriculture, the fee is 1000 NIS. (There are roughly four shekels to a dollar.)

Personnel companies control the market

The vast majority of both migrant and Israeli farm workers are employed through personnel ("manpower") companies. Even the kibbutzim have undergone privatization and put the profit-motive uppermost. WAC's first attempts to find work for Arabs in agriculture – work, that is, under collective agreements as achieved by organized labor – received the following response from a personnel-company coordinator: "Most of the kibbutzim work with Thais and are very satisfied. There's no way you'll persuade them to replace the Thais with Arab workers."

Such jobs as do open up in agriculture are usually exploitative, occurring outside the framework of organized labor. Apart from the personnel companies, there are subcontractors, often Arab themselves, who exploit the high unemployment in Arab towns and villages, particularly among women, to hire people at low wages without social benefits. Many women work in agriculture on unofficial arrangements in which a subcontractor, often a family member, drives them to the job and pays them. Their labor is unregistered and they get no wage slips. For social-security or insurance purposes, therefore, they do not exist. Their pay is far below the legal minimum. It is common for a woman in agriculture to earn around NIS 13.5 per hour instead of the legal minimum of 17.93. When a woman works under these conditions without complaining, as many do, it is sometimes because she has no alternative. But there are also social constraints: her family and neighbors pressure her not to get the subcontractor (friend or kinsman) into trouble.  

Many young people who work in the harvest also suffer because their labor is unorganized. Maaruf Atur, for example, has a 34-year-old son, Jihad, who was with the team the kibbutz laid off. Today he works in the apple harvests for Jewish farmers, but he does not have a written agreement and gets no wage slip. "The farmers demand that we work illegally," Jihad said. "I receive 3 NIS for every tree I prune. I am responsible for the costs of vehicle and tools. In one day's hard work my partner and I can prune 100 trees – 50 each. So I earn 150 NIS for each day's work, but after all the expenses I am left with less than NIS 100, or NIS 2,500 per month. This wage is around NIS 1000 less than the legal minimum, and of course it is not enough to maintain a house, a family – or pay the school fees for our five children."

Iyyad Karum, 23, works in the grapefruit harvest of Moshav Beit Hillel in the Upper Galilee. "I am skilled in this work and can fill 12 crates in seven hours. I earn NIS 240, because the contractor pays me a fair wage of NIS 20 per crate. Others who work at the same task are forced to work for NIS 12 per crate or NIS 150 per day, but the work depends on the weather. The harsh winter this January and February meant that I couldn't work much. In January I worked only ten days and earned very little."

WAC initiates organized employment in agriculture

The Arabs are willing to work in agriculture despite physical hardships, low wages and instability. The claim by the Ministry of Commerce and Industry, that no Israelis want to go into the fields, is simply wrong.

The problem is not a lack of local workers. It is rather that the Jewish farmers have become addicted to cheap, unorganized migrant laborers who put in 16 hours daily for no additional pay and never complain. They are unwilling to employ Israeli workers again within the framework of collective agreements.

During the 1990's, the Israeli labor market opened itself to global labor and quickly spun into anarchy. Tens of thousands lost their jobs. Arabs lost the only sectors that had been open to them: textiles, construction and agriculture. Their unemployment has led to marginalization, social disintegration and, in response, increasing conservatism. The struggle to reclaim agricultural jobs is vital for re-establishing organized labor. Organization is the key to ending the anti-Arab discrimination, as well as the exploitation of migrant workers.


Employment of Arabs in Agriculture: 1990 – 2003

Using the Statistical Abstract of Israel, published by the Central Bureau of Statistics, we arrive at the following figures. (These figures cover, of course, only registered workers reporting to the authorities. In our estimation, between 6 -10 thousand more people are actually working in the fields without registering. The decline in the number of officially employed should be added to an even greater decline in the number of unregistered workers.)

In 1990, before the influx of migrant workers, 71,000 people were officially employed in agriculture: 51,000 Jews and 20,000 non-Jews (almost all of them Arabs). Of the 20,000 non-Jews, 5000 were employers, self-employed, or family members working their own fields. 15,000 were salaried employees, including 9000 from the Occupied Territories and 6000 from Israel.

In 1998, after the migrant workers began to arrive, there were 73,000 people officially in agriculture. Of these, 37,000 were Jews (a drop of 14,000 in eight years). Of the 36,000 non-Jews, 3000 were employers, self-employed, or worked in their own fields. The remaining 33,000 were salaried employees. Of the latter, 9000 were Arabs from Israel. 24,000 are listed as "other." Because of the closure on the Territories, imposed in 1993, almost all of these "other" were migrant workers. Thus in 1998, the overall number of Arabs employed in agriculture had decreased by half since 1990. The migrant workers replaced both them and the Jewish workers. Nevertheless, the number of salaried Arab farm workers from within Israel actually increased to compensate in part for the absence of Palestinians from the Territories.

In 2003, almost 70,000 were employed in agriculture. Of these, 35,000 were Jews, 24,000 were migrant workers, and 10,300 were Arabs. Of the last, 2900 were Palestinians from the Territories. Of Arabs in Israel, about 2000 were employers, self-employed, or worked in their own fields. 5500 were salaried employees.


The Statistical Abstract of Israel is available, starting from 1996, at


May 2005

First published by
Challenge magazine

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