Michael Riordon

the view from where I live

Wafa Tayara & Michal Shwartz: Workers unite

Michal Shwarz parks the ancient Toyota in a pool of thin shade by a small, parched tree. Though Ramadan holy month has emptied the streets of Kufr Qara, the Workers Advice Centre is open. Inside, Wafa Tayara talks intensely with five young women. At another desk, Dani Ben-Simhon speaks rapid Hebrew into the phone, running a restless hand over his bristled head. Interpreting for me today is Michal Shwartz, a founder of the Workers Advice Centre.Her lively gaze follows the two exchanges.

Michal explains, “Dani is trying to persuade a Jewish farm-owner to employ these five Arab women – it’s harvest now so they need workers to pack produce. Wafa is trying to convince the women to work with us instead of with a sub-contractor who skims 1200 shekels from their wages every month.” 1200 shekels, about $400, is a huge bite.

In Kufr Qara, as in almost every Palestinian village within Israel, most of the land has been confiscated by the Israeli state. At the same time, the government provides no practical support for industry in Arab villages. If people here want to work, says Michal, they have no choice but to work in Jewish farms and factories.

In the office, Wafa continues to negotiate with the five women. “Wafa is telling them it’s a good place to work,” says Michal, “not too heavy, putting things in boxes, and it’s not under the sun.” Dani leans into the phone, as if to add weight to his case.

This small local drama is part of a much bigger battle. “On the big Jewish farms,” Michal explains. “local Palestinians are being replaced by foreign workers. Already more than half the farm-workers in this country are from Thailand. They are brought here for five years by manpower companies, ‘shackled,’ as we say, meaning they are tied to one boss – it actually says so in their passports. They work like slaves, fourteen, sixteen hours a day, at thirteen shekels an hour. The legal minimum wage is twenty. For this the farm-owner gets a subsidy from the Israeli government. As a result, you can see what a struggle it is to get Arab workers – citizens of Israel, by the way – hired even temporarily.”

From outside, the muezzin’s songful voice, amplified, calls the faithful to prayer.

One of nine sisters and two brothers, Wafa Tayara was born in Kufr Qara in 1973. Her father worked in factories, picked fruit, raised chickens, ran a small grocery, did what he could. The young Wafa wanted to work too, but married as soon as she finished high-school, and before long she had four children. Her husband worked in construction, until a disk ruptured in his back.

With no professional training, farm-work was the only field open to Wafa. “My husband’s family thought that this work was not respectable,” she says. “People would say that if I had to do such work they must be destitute.”

From necessity she persevered, working on a variety of farms. On one she suggested that she and her co-workers ask for a raise, but most feared that if they made any demands, the boss would replace them. Wafa also ran into trouble with her neighbour, a Palestinian sub-contractor who supplied workers to farms in the area. “He said I was making these women think too much, while he was doing them a favour just by allowing them to work, so I should shut up.”

At the time, the Workers Advice Centre was launching an initiative to organize farm-work for women. Dani Ben-Simhon persuaded Wafa to join. She organized a group of four women to work with her on a farm near Kufr Qara, cramming themselves into her small car each day.

When other village women heard that Wafa and her friends earned one-third more they did, they started coming to her for work. They pleaded with her not to tell the sub-contractor. But of course he knew, this was a village. “He went to the fathers and husbands, he said, ‘What do you want, more money or someone to protect your daughters and wives?’ He even threatened to burn my car. But these tactics didn’t work,” says Wafa. “More and more women came, so many that finally the sub-contractor asked if he could work with us.” As Wafa recounts this in Arabic, Michal laughs merrily.

After a year, Wafa accepted a paid job as full-time organizer with WAC. Its thirty workers across Israel are all paid equally, a little above the minimum wage.

Dani comes off the phone grinning: The farm-owner will hire the five women, at least for now. Driving to a nearby moshav where we would meet with farm-workers, I asked Wafa Tayara what impact her job has on life at home. Her co-worker and comrade Michal Shwartz translates.

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