Wednesday, February 11, 2009

Slave Labor - Israel's Construction Industry

Israel is a Western-style democracy in which the rights of all individuals are protected by law. If you believe that, guess again! Like many other Western democracies, Israel has relied on a slave class to do the hard labor to create a society in which the "decent people" can enjoy a comfortable standard of living.

It wouldn't be fair to single Israel out for its shortcomings; even the United States turned a blind eye and allowed slavery from the time of its founding and denied a sizeable segment of the population rights under the Constitution that was designed to ensure those rights to all persons living within the borders of the country. However, it is also far from praiseworthy for a society to assume a facade of being a democracy when it continues to build its economy on the backs of men -- and only men -- who provide slave labor to build the country while the "good Israelis" regard the tasks that these men perform as beneath their dignity.

Nowhere is slave labor more obvious than in the construction industry. This problem was not born when the young state was created, as comedian Dudu Topaz pointed out in his Slip of the Tongue routine in the 1980's; one of his jokes included a man telling his grandson about how he helped build so many buildings in Tel-Aviv, which prompted his grandson's question: "Grandpa, were you an Arab?" In truth, one of the legacies of the 1967 Six Day War was a large Arab population living under Israeli military rule in the occupied territories; the male residents of these territories, anxious to profit from the new political realities, were only too willing to enter Israel to seek work, and Israeli employers, who knew that the spending power in the territories would enable Arab laborers to work for competitively low wages, were prepared to take the risk of hiring workers whose political sentiments might be hostile in order to build up their empires within Israel.

For close to two decades, this arrangement worked for the most part; all over the country, areas that became known as the "slave markets" sprang up, where Arabs from the territories stood and waited for Israeli entrepreneurs in need of laborers to come by to offer them work, whether on a daily or weekly basis. Technically, every Arab laborer was supposed to be registered with the Israeli government to be allowed to work within Israel; in practice, not always did the employers go through the trouble to register their fly-by-night hires. Because not all the Arab laborers regarded the Israeli-Arab dispute as something they wanted to forget, violent clashes often occurred; just as often, Israeli employers, fearful of such reprisals that could harm or incriminate them, saw fit to lock the Arab workers inside their temporary sleeping quarters. This latter practice could, and did, result in tragedy if a fire or other hazard broke out; the male slave laborers were helpless to flee the danger.

The intifada brought this arrangement to an end rapidly. Contractors, suddenly faced with a glaring lack of workers to complete their construction projects, made a desperate attempt to encourage young Israelis looking for career vocations to turn back to the construction industry in the hopes of solving both the problem of the labor shortage and the risk that employing residents of hostile areas had posed. This attempt, while well intended, did not gain sufficient popularity to return the construction industry to a "respectable" status in the eyes of Israelis; to them, construction was still too lowly for them to allow their children to do.

Faced with no alternatives locally, building contractors turned abroad to look for men desperate to feed their families to offer them contracts for work in Israel. In Romania, Israeli contractors found a sizeable audience of men who could not make a living in their own country. The contractors made arrangements to pay for their passage to Israel, to pay their wages, to provide them with living quarters, and to pay for their return passage at the completion of the work. All the laborers worked according to a contract properly drawn up, so the arrangements looked acceptable.

Unfortunately for the men who came to work in Israel, soon they were to learn the meaning of what Israelis call "Israbluff". Soon, they learned that the employers would confiscate their passports to prevent them from abandoning the project once they discovered that they would be living in conditions unfit for human habitation, that they would have meager quantities of food shoved into their quarters under doors or through bars, as if they were in a cage in a zoo, and that they would receive what was written in their contracts minus several onerous deductions about which the employers had not mentioned a word at the time the contracts were signed. Worse yet, they would soon learn that while the Israeli media would put them on display as subjects for stories, nobody would come to their assistance; either they were "those foreigners" or they were "stealing jobs from Israelis." Either way, nobody cared enough to fight for the rights of these men.

It must be noted that only men fall into this category; women are noticeably absent. Part of the reason for the indifference of the Israeli public towards the plight of these men is because they are men and not women; these men are expected to accept slave labor conditions graciously because otherwise they would not be able to support their families and, consequently, would fail as men. Of the few Israeli politicians who have shown empathy with the plight of these slave laborers, the absence of female politicians is even more conspicuously absent. The message is clear: men are beasts of burden to Israelis, creatures who are on the earth just to spawn children, work until exhausted to provide for others, be locked away like animals at any time someone sees fit to do so to them, and to jump on live grenades to prove that they are "heroes." Any man who deviates from this stereotype is not worthy of being called a man -- which may explain why women do not try to compete!

The slave labor trade in Israel will continue to exploit men unless men speak up to stop the slavery. Before they do that, they have to redefine manhood and to seek their own liberation from the slavery that every man faces in a world that seeks to "put men in their place." It is easy to say, "It's not my problem," just because a man isn't a Romanian locked in some hovel while he works to support a family in Timisoara; the truth is that it is every man's problem, because the original problem would never have occurred if men were freed of their role as slaves to their families who can desert them the moment that they are no longer able to produce any more.

All the ills that affect men living in Israel can be seen in the case of these foreign laborers: exploitation, denial of human rights and dignity, denial of the right to travel freely, and the worst nemesis of them all: public apathy towards the plight of men in general. How about it, men? Who'll pick up the glove?

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