The struggle to empower Arab women and assist them in obtaining agricultural work did not start last summer, and was not a result of the social protest. This struggle started six years ago, with a special project to open jobs in agriculture for Arab women, with all peripheral benefits and according to the law. Getting wage slips which outline reductions from wages and peripheral benefits may seem to be the absolute minimum, but for many Arab women who are desperate to work this is an achievement. Especially when most farmers prefer to employ imported laborers under even poorer terms.
Some 80% of Arab women do not work, while half of their children live under the poverty line, yet this issue did not become part of the social protest’s discourse. For this reason, the Workers Advice Center (WAC-Ma’an) decided that if Mohammed won’t come to the mountain, the mountain will have to come to Mohammed. At the end of October, hundreds of Arab women, all WAC members, came to Tel Aviv’s Rothschild Boulevard to make their voices heard. After marching the boulevard together with activists from the social protest movement, they were hosted at Beit Ha’am (“the people’s house”) for debates and workshops on the subject of women’s employment.
Now it was time for the social protest activists to pay a return visit to Baqa al-Gharbiyeh and continue to build on common ground, working towards social justice for all – including Arab women.
WAC’s Baqa branch was a little small for the 60 people who crowded into the hall. Among those present, some 20 women were prominent. These women had undergone a gradual process of understanding that they could be an important contributing factor in their family finances. It should also be noted that this month marks the 100 anniversary of the women’s demonstrations in Lawrence, Massachusetts. The women there adopted the slogan “bread and roses” inspired by James Oppenheim’s poem, published in The American Magazine in 1911. “We want bread, but we want roses too!” these women shouted. This same slogan, with an emphasis on work and empowerment, was also adopted by WAC as the title of its annual art exhibition whose aim is to raise funds for the Arab women placement and empowerment project.
Wafa Tayara, former agricultural worker, directs the WAC center at Baqa. She says WAC’s aim is not merely to get women out of the cycle of poverty and away from the ra’is (contractor) who takes a large cut of their wages. The aim is also to improve their lives and their place in society.
“Minister of Industry, Trade and Labor Shalom Simhon complains that Arab women are spoiled,” she says. “He claims they don’t want to work, but in reality they want to work very much but are confronted with a labor market that shuts them out. At WAC, we pound on every door in our attempt to persuade the government to stop subsidizing the farmers by importing exploited Thai workers at the expense of Arab workers.”
Amani Qaadan, who also works at WAC, welcomed the guests and said she was deeply moved to see them. She told them she had completed a BA in psychology and sociology at Tel Aviv University and had dreamed of an academic career. However, she soon realized that the center of her life and place of residence, a distant Arab village without public transport or support for mothers like crèches and kindergartens, would not enable her to fulfill her dream.
Wafa invited Arab women who work via WAC to speak about themselves. One after the other, they got up to speak – hard-working women who do not ask for charity, who simply want a job, who understand that even if they don’t obtain the longed-for changes, they nonetheless have a role in creating a better future for their children.
Suraya Abu Wasal from Kufr Qara worked for seven years as a kindergarten assistant for a meager wage. She was also poorly treated. Sick of this situation, she left the kindergarten and worked for eight years in agriculture via a ra’is. Today she works via WAC, legally, and receives a wage slip. For the first time, she feels that her wage is making a real difference to her family finances. Even her hope to send her children to higher education is no longer just a distant dream.
Lulu Abu Moch from Baqa is 50 years old, and has an 18-year-old daughter with a heart condition. After being ground down by working via a ra’is, Lulu left him and came to WAC. She now works at a packing house and earns NIS 5,000 – an enormous sum for her – but she lives in constant fear that the work will come to an end and she’ll have to go back to contractor work. When will she be able to get up each morning secure in the knowledge that she has stable work for a fair wage? This is the question she asks us.
Enaya Shadeed does not work in agriculture, but she is a member of WAC and takes part in the empowerment groups. She went from one humiliating job to another, earning NIS 80 per day, in work which sometimes lasted nine or 10 hours each day. Because of WAC, she understood that the wage she earned was not legal – it was a long way below the minimum wage, and granted her no wage slip or peripheral benefits. This knowledge helped her to demand her rights, and today she works in a home for the aged, earning NIS 32 per hour. Although she works just three hours each day, she earns more than when she worked long hours for an illegal wage. (Enaya played the part of the “worker” in the film Look at Us, screened later that day, in which women agricultural workers talk about their lives.)
Tami Zandberg, Tel Aviv-Jaffa city council member (Meretz), spoke for Beit Ha’am. She told the women about the social protest which began due to the high price of housing and the enormous socioeconomic gaps. She said young couples require their parents’ help in order to raise their children and pay kindergarten fees and rent.
“At our age,” she said, “our parents already had their own apartments.” She also spoke about the hope the social protest had engendered, and said the protest must be continued until we see real results.
Einat Hatzimri Shavit, a community social worker from Kfar Saba, moved everyone with her words. Many see the social workers’ strike as one of the swallows that heralded the social protest summer. Einat spoke about the struggle which began in March last year.
“You could say that because of wage erosion, during the last few years we have worked almost voluntarily,” she said. “Finally we decided we had no choice but to fight to change our situation. We prepared for the strike for many months, and waged an exemplary campaign. There was solidarity among all the workers, and we felt we had succeeded in gaining public support. Despite all this, the blow came from someone who was once the head of our union, who signed a humiliating agreement via the Histadrut. The agreement made many of us despair, but not all of us. A group among the social workers decided not to throw in the towel. We contacted WAC, an experienced workers’ organization, which is now assisting us. We understand that our struggle is part of the changes that must take place. For that reason, we emphasize cooperation between Jews and Arabs within the union. I believe the government’s contempt for the social workers is similar to a great extent to its attitude towards Arab women.”
The visit was brought to a close by Shiri Wilk’s beautiful and moving film, Look at Us, produced by Video48. The film looks at WAC’s recruitment of Arab women for agricultural work, for a decent wage, with wage slips and peripheral benefits. Wilk shows how these women, receiving a fair wage, feel that they have regained their self-respect. They become a significant factor in their family finances, and are able to afford the “roses” in life, the small dreams that once seemed so unattainable.
After the film screening, Lital Levin, one of those who organized the visit, spoke about the film. The women interviewed, she said, mentioned their isolation and how they dispelled it in their organization with other women. This gave them strength they didn’t think they had, strength they could not have discovered alone. This is exactly the process undergone by thousands of people who have taken to the streets since last summer. This coming-together changed our perception of ourselves as citizens and humans, and gave us strength we didn’t know we had and that we couldn’t have discovered alone. This wonderful meeting in Baqa, which might not have been possible without the summer’s protest, and which may broaden our common opportunities, is thus especially moving and exciting.