Conversation with Erez Wagner, WAC’s Coordinator in East Jerusalem – Erez Wagner is coordinator at the Jerusalem branch of the Workers Advice Center. He is 31 years old, married, and father of an eight-month-old daughter. In addition to his work with WAC, Erez is also a prolific artist, and has donated some of his works to the “Bread and Roses” exhibition. He is currently working on a new radio program, “Work Hour,” on Thursdays at 9:00 a.m. on the Voice of Peace (107.2 FM).
By: Eran Krivine & Uri Ansenberg
Let’s start at the beginning. What led you to work at the Workers Advice Center (WAC)?
For a long time I had been searching for a political framework in which to be active but had found nothing. The fear of engaging in political action which I detected among many young people seemed to me to be a way of evading the need to change the society in which they lived. The activities of the leftwing parties was so disconnected to reality on the ground, it was clear why these young people dreaded politics. I was introduced to WAC’s activities purely by chance, during the long teachers’ strike in 2007 and the disappointment that came in its wake. It began with a search for a pension agreement which led to an article on WAC’s website about the pension plan they offer to members. My attention was also caught by an article by Assaf Adiv, “The Missing Arab representative at the Teachers’ Strike.” This combination of practical activism with a broader worldview and political critique was compelling. I called them immediately to ask about the pension and the organization, and began to be active straight away.
The decision to work at WAC was made during the Gaza war in 2009. I saw the insanity of violence which gripped Israeli society, and this led to the decision – not to sink into an existence disconnected from harsh reality, but to devote myself to activity.
Which aspects of reality have you seen during your work in East Jerusalem?
I began to see the central role played by the labor market in the policy of the occupation. My week is divided between work “in the field” in the Employment Bureau and industrial zones, and office work where people come for legal assistance. Thus I am exposed to a daily existence of East Jerusalemites in which there is no work except temporary jobs via manpower contractors; in which the Employment Services act on the assumption that residents are chronically unemployed and must be denied benefits, and of course there is no aspiration to create jobs to solve the unemployment problem; and in which the National Insurance Institute (NII) interrogates every jobseeker as if he were a criminal before granting any benefits. The bottom line is: no wonder some 73% of East Jerusalem residents live below the poverty line; this is the result of intentional policy.
You have claimed that the NII’s behavior towards the unemployed at the East Jerusalem bureau sometimes seems like it’s been taken straight out of Kafka. Can you explain?
Kafka describes justice as arbitrary and groundless. In The Trial, K. finds himself standing trial without knowing what he’s been accused of, thus he has no effective defense and is sentenced to death. East Jerusalem residents are in a similar situation: an ordinary claim for benefits from the NII, which in Israel would take three months at the most, is liable to take over a year. Meanwhile, the claimant is interrogated by NII detectives about himself, his family and neighbors. Furthermore, the NII is liable to deny benefits without giving a reason (which is illegal). Residents who requested to see their file were sent to the central NII branch, where they were told they were not allowed to see the files. Some were even told entry was not allowed to Arabs. It’s the same in the Employment Bureau. Jobseekers are told their benefits have been discontinued after the fact, on the claim that they refused work, even though no form had been sent to them regarding refusal to work and no reasons given. Thus they reach the appeals committee without even knowing what they’re accused of or against which claims they must defend themselves.
Tell us about the union’s struggle waged by WAC for the last three years at the Salit Quarries in Mishor Adumim. What is special about this struggle?
This quarry is in the occupied territories. The workers there are Palestinians from the territories and from East Jerusalem, and they are treated accordingly. Until they organized with WAC, the quarry didn’t even give wage slips to the workers from the territories. The struggle is changing the arbitrary way they are treated, and has led to negotiations and a collective agreement which we hope to sign soon.
About half a year ago, a collective agreement was signed between WAC and the Musrara School of Photography. What’s the connection between the work with the unemployed in East Jerusalem and the work with the teachers’ committee at Musrara?
Much more than legal aid is needed in order to improve the situation of the unemployed in East Jerusalem. A social movement is needed that will change the way the unemployed are treated in general, and these specific unemployed in particular. The fact that the two groups (the one Palestinian, the other Jewish) find a home under the roof of the same union, and the tangible achievements reached via this union – these are a part of such a movement.
The National Labor Court is soon to rule on an appeal submitted by the Israel Antiquities Authority (IAA) on the issue of workers it employed via a manpower contractor, workers that were represented by WAC. Can you describe the case in relation to the issue of manpower contractors in Israel?
Employment via manpower contractors in Israel has spread like a plague. Some 10% of the labor force in Israel is employed via such contractors – the highest rate in the western world. Employment via manpower contractors is paradise for employers who thus avoid all responsibility for their workers. But it’s a nightmare for the workers, who lose most of their basic rights including the right to organize.
In 2008 Workers employed by the contractor Brik contacted us after being dismissed from their work at archeological digs. These workers had been employed for about a year, and due to an amendment to the law, the IAA should have employed them directly (instead of via Brik). The court upheld our claim and ruled that the workers should be reemployed directly by the IAA.
But apart from the case and its apparent success, this is an example of workers organizing and challenging this defective system. The significance of this challenge was that the workers led us to other workers. It was very exciting when the workers from East Jerusalem took us to meet other Jewish workers from the immigrant absorption center in Mevaseret Zion, and linked us with workers in Israel’s periphery, Ashdod and Kiryat Gat. The fact that these were both Jewish and Arab workers didn’t matter to anyone. They wanted their friends from work to enjoy the rights they struggled for.
It’s important to note that even if the case ends successfully for us, the struggle has only just begun. The labor market in Israel does not respect labor law, and the first to infringe labor laws is the state and its institutions. Even in this case, the IAA refused to follow the court ruling and employ the workers directly. In short, only unionization can improve the employment conditions for workers employed via contractors.
And a final question: what do you think is East Jerusalem’s future?
The political changes in the region, above all the Egyptian revolution, are having a great impact on the conflict and the occupation. The more the Egyptian uprising leads to progressive democracy, the harder it will be for Israel to maintain the occupation, and a more democratic and effective path to struggle will open up to the Palestinians. Such a struggle can persuade the fearful Israeli public that it is possible to put the occupation behind us and march towards a better, more egalitarian future – just like the struggles of the Salit Quarry and Brik workers sparked hope among Brik workers in Kiryat Gat and among the teachers of Musrara School.
I believe that the ideal of equality and the practice of applying it through organizing workers in unions will play a central role in paving this path.