Yesterday I met with Khitam Na'amneh and Assaf Adiv who are visiting Britain on behalf of the Workers’ Advice Centres (Ma’an in Arabic) from Israel. Khitam is the women’s organiser, and Assaf is the national coordinator of the trade union that organises mainly Israeli Arabs, but also Jewish workers.
During their tour they have met many trade unionists, including the leaders of the FBU and RMT, the TUC’s international department, and had a meeting in the House of Commons organised by John Mcdonnell. Even meeting the tUC was a step forward as originally the TUC refused too meet them, beacsue they organise outside the Zionist trade union federation, the Histadrut, but after taking advice from the General federation of Palestinian Trade Unions (who themselves do not organise in Israel) the TUC changed their mind.
WAC does not organise within Histadrut simply because that is the situation they find themselves in. Histadrut is not interested in Arab workers, and Arab workers have no faith in it.
Some 20% of Israel’s population is non-Jewish, and around 50% of israeli Arabs live below poverty level. A key to this is that only 17% of Arab women work, and the WAC has been campaigning to get Jewish businesses - particularly in the agricultural sector – to employ these Arab women. The increasing deregulation and privatisation of the Israeli economy has also impacted on employment rights and wages, for both Arabs and Jews.
Since Oslo, and the closure of the border with the West Bank and Gaza, Israel has brought in fixed quotas of Chinese, Thai and Filipino workers to replace Arab labour, and it as also replaced some Jewish workers. Farmers love employing the Thai workers because they will work for 12 or 15 hours but be paid for only eight, and will sleep and eat on the job. Nevertheless WAC has been successful in pressurising farmers to employ 150 Arab women, and this is just the start of the campaign.
Last week, for International Womens’ Day, WAC organised a march through Tel Aviv of these Arab women workers mainly from Galilee demanding that the government stop “importing” cheap, exploited workers from Thailand and allow them – the Arab women – to earn a living. As they marched, they shouted slogans such as “No to unemployment,” “No to the new slavery of foreign workers,” “Yes to work, no to poverty,” and “Create job opportunities.”
The aim of the demonstration was to give the lie to the claims of Israeli farmers and the government who say that local Arab workers are not ready to work in agriculture, and that it is Arab society that prevents women from working and not the lack of jobs. The demonstrators protested against the Israeli government's decision to import a further 3000 Thai agricultural workers, in addition to the 26,000 that already work in Israel.
It should be noticed that the opposition of these Arab workers is not racist or protectionist. In fact the WAC works closely with NGOs who support the migrant workers. The issue here is that the migrant workers themselves are being used as part of a racist government policy to exclude Israeli Arabs from economic activity.
The march drew the attention of the Israeli media, and received prime time coverage in the first and second TV channels. A short video named “A day in the life of Siham,” produced by the Video 48 group, was also shown on Israeli TV.