Spotlight interview with Gershon Gelman (Israel – Histadrut)
Brussels, 02 May 2006 (ICFTU OnLine): Four years ago, the president of Histadrut for the Tel Aviv and Jaffa region, Gershon Gelman, opened the only trade union structure in Israel for the 150,000 migrants employed in the country. Dozens of migrants now come to his Tel Aviv office every month to seek advice on how to defend their rights. It is the first union structure of its kind, a first step forward, that Gershon Gelman would like to take further.
What convinced you to open this office?
A chance encounter. It was at the beginning of 2000. I was sat in a café near the Histadrut office when a group of Filipino workers, who had recognised me from television, came over to ask if I could give them some information about their rights. I gave them my contact details and the machine was set in motion! As the weeks passed, the calls for help became more and more frequent. We were receiving queries and complaints about pay conditions, accommodation, food, working hours, dismissal requirements…the queries were piling up. Men and women of all nationalities were coming to me, asking me to mediate with their employers, in many cases, simply to get their pay.
How has the status of migrant workers evolved within Histadrut?
Prior to 2001, there was no trade union structure within Histadrut for these Chinese, Filipino, Thai or African workers, despite the large numbers of them working in Israel. In 2001, I asked the leadership of my organisation to create an official structure to handle all the grievances being brought to me, to open an office to receive and provide assistance to the tens of thousand of nurses, domestic workers, construction or agricultural workers employed here. I was convinced, and still am, that the rights of the national labour force cannot be protected without the protection of the migrant workforce. Amir Peretz, who was the President of the general labour confederation, Histadrut, at the time, suggested that we experiment, with the idea in the region I was responsible for – the Jaffa and Tel Aviv area. That is how I got started. Today, migrant workers can join Histadrut, but they do not have voting rights – a factor that explains why so few are members.
What conditions are you working in?
The resources available to me are very meagre, in relation to the scope of the problems to be resolved. No other structure has been set up in the country, and in Tel Aviv there are only five of us doing this work – on top of all our other duties. One of the problems we face is the fact that many migrant workers are isolated employees. Some 50,000 Filipinos, for example, are employed here as home carers. Every one of them works alone, meaning that each one is a separate case and has to be dealt with as such. One of them called me yesterday, to ask for help with obtaining recognition of her right to change employer. Migrants’ work visas are, you should know, attached to a person or a company, in other words, they cannot work wherever they please. They have the right to work in one place only, unless the authorities agree otherwise…So, the family this women works for is refusing to feed her as they should, and have confiscated her passport so that she cannot leave. I intervened in the case, and it should be resolved. But just imagine, there are dozens of cases like this one, each of which has to be handled separately! To give you another example, this morning a women called me because her employer was refusing to give her the weekly day off she is entitled to. I took the telephone to speak with her employer and resolve the problem. And so on, and so forth. For each complaint, one, two or three phone calls have to be made to sort things out. My job would be much easier if I only had to deal with the Chinese construction workers, because when they contact me, they do so as a group, A group of twenty or so workers who recently contacted me to demand respect for their right to the minimum wage. In many cases, unfortunately, we have to manage the cases individually, which takes up a lot of time that we don’t have.
What rights do migrant workers have in Israel?
Legally, they have the same rights as Israeli workers. They should be paid a monthly wage of at least $650, they have the right to work no more than 168 hours a month, to be paid overtime, and so on. But the situation in reality is very different. The reasons are many. Every time we intervene to ensure that these rights are respected, the employers assure us, in all sincerity, that they did not mean to break the law. True of false, this confirms, in any case, the need to provide migrant workers with training in Israeli law. Many of them not only have the handicap of not speaking our language, or even English, but they are also affected by their total ignorance of the legislation in force. That’s why, whenever we can, we organise seminars to inform these people about the labour laws in Israel. We have already held four of them for Filipino employees and two for the Chinese. Unfortunately, the take-up has not been as large as we expected. Too many people come to us when it’s often when too late.
How can migrant workers find out about your office?
We regularly publish ads in the press to make ourselves known. We also print leaflets in English and Chinese informing them of the services on offer, with our address and a telephone number where they can contact us. Word of mouth also works well.
What proportion of migrant workers are employed in the Israeli labour market?
Seven per cent of the workforce. Just a few years ago, one in ten employees in Israel was a migrant worker. These workers take on the essential tasks within the national economy that most Israelis do not want to assume. That, moreover, is the condition on which they are able to come here to work: the employer has to prove that an Israeli candidate cannot be found. That’s why I see these people as heroes – heroes who come to make up for our deficiencies, then leave once their contract is over.
The massive influx of home carers is linked to the cuts in the public health sector. What is your reaction to this, as a trade unionist?
There is, indeed, a causal relationship between the cuts in public health care and the massive rise in the number of women employed to take care of our elderly citizens. I would, of course, prefer it if the public health system could take in more people…care for them in good conditions, which is not always the case nowadays.
Aside from the home carers, most of these people have replaced the Palestinian workers, to whom Israel has been allocating very few work permits since the beginning of the Second Intifada. What would become of the migrant workers if the peace process between Israel and Palestine were to make headway?
What would happen if the peace process were to succeed? The Palestinians would undoubtedly come back to work here in the construction or agricultural sectors and some of the migrants would return home. But don’t forget that the Palestinians will also need to rebuild their own economy.
What hopes do you have for the future?
First of all, that other offices of this kind will be opened in the country. We cannot receive everyone – we neither have the time nor the resources. What’s more, many workers are not able to travel all the way to Tel Aviv. I know that there are many people in the trade union movement who are still worried about these workers competing with the national labour force. They are mistaken. There is no such competition. Moreover, let’s be serious: in Israel, like in every other part of the world, the only thing employers are concerned about is cutting their labour costs. So how could one possibly fail to be concerned about a decline in the working conditions of migrant workers? They are the same as ours. Another thing I hope to see, is greater cooperation with European and International trade union organisations. We need to share information about the different mechanisms that exist in the area of support and guidance for migrant workers. We need help to deal with this problem, which we are trying to cope with all on our own.
What demands would you make of the government in this respect?
While we accept that the Israeli labour market cannot be opened up to all, we expect more consideration on the part of the political, administrative and police authorities for these people, who everyone knows we need. We have suffered enough to know how important it is to respect and understand others.
Interview by Martine Hassoun
For 15 year there has been another structure in Tel Aviv that provides support and assistance to migrant workers, a non-governmental organisation called Kav La’oved, founded in 1991 by a handful of jurists. The organisation has long supplemented the work of the trade union movement in this area.
Until the mid nineties, most of its dealings were with Palestinian workers, legal and illegal. Tens of thousands of these workers (140,000 officially), used to earn a living in construction, agriculture or hostelry, on the other side of the border. They have been replaced by Chinese, Thai, African or Romanian workers. Kav La’oved continues with its mission: giving advice, information, legal assistance, defending migrant workers’ rights, visiting workplaces, providing legal aid, representing them in court and drawing up studies and information. Its twelve employees, backed by a team of 35 volunteers, tackle this mammoth task every day from its offices near the city’s bus station. Last year, Kav La’oved handled 2,200 complaints and supported in court some 500 people – Palestinians, migrants and even Israelis.
A few months ago, the organisation established new ties in the West Bank. In addition to its longstanding relations with the PGFTU in Qalqiliya, it is now cooperating with the Jericho branch of this Palestinian trade union federation, in order to defend the Palestinian workers employed in the Israeli industrial colonies established there. At the beginning of April, the Israeli High Court of Justice ruled in favour of a petition it had lodged, with five other associations, to give migrants the freedom to work for an employer other than the one that brought them into the country. According to Hanna Zohar, the head of the organisation: “If Histadrut were to evolve and take over the role we have been fulfilling since 1991, we would be quite happy to disappear.”