Migrant Chinese workers, who found work in the Promised Land, may now be hung out to dry by the Israeli government.
The New Promised Land
They have arrived here in the hopes of a better life. Some have crossed the Security Wall from the Palestinian West Bank, while for some others, the journey took them from the other extreme of the Asian continent. Have the Palestinian, Thai and Chinese workers found what they are seeking? What are the unique issues they have to deal with working in this land of conflict?
Last year, they emerged from the woodworks of Israeli construction sites onto the local evening news bulletins.
Two incidents occurred where Chinese migrant workers mounted cranes and refused to come down because of pay disputes. They were due to return to China, and wanted their employers to pay them the wages still owing to them.
The issue was finally resolved and the workers duly compensated.
There are around 20,000 Chinese migrant workers in Israel. They started coming here after the First Palestinian uprising began in 1987. Israeli security concerns meant less Palestinians could come from the West Bank and Gaza to work in the construction industry – a vacuum to be filled by Chinese arriving largely from rural China.
Having been here for more than two decades, the Chinese migrant worker community in Israel is at crossroads.
In 2006, the Israeli government announced it was going to
rely more on local and Palestinian labour, and terminate the use of Chinese migrant workers in the construction sector by 2010. Industry players have managed to lobby for an extension till 2012.
While Israel has stopped importing Chinese migrant workers into the construction industry for the last two years, those already in the country are wondering what this new policy means for them. According to Dana Shaved of Kav La’Oved, a migrant workers' rights organisation in Israel, many of them have turned up, asking just how long more they were allowed to work in the country.
To come to work in Israel, Chinese workers pay an average of US$30,000 to an agent back home.
To come to work in Israel, Chinese workers pay an average of US$30,000 to an agent back home. With a monthly salary of about US$1,000, it takes them more than two years of legal work and plenty of moonlighting to pay off this initial debt. After this period, they start to make money to send to their families to buy land or a home, or eventually start a small business in China.
This new Israeli policy doesn't leave them much time.
Chinese workers: A money-making trade
Chinese migrant workers have not only helped to provide Israel with labourers it needed after the First Palestinian uprising, they have also provided those involved in their employment with a lucrative source of income.
To protect the rights of the workers, the Israeli government instituted the establishment of “manpower agencies”. These private agencies in Israel employ the labourers and find work for them in the country. This additional tier of middlemen means yet more people are involved in making profits off the employment of Chinese workers.
For every worker these agencies employ, the Israeli government levies a fee of US$30,000 per head. According to a report by Kav La’Oved, this is partly the reason for the exorbitant amount Chinese workers pay to their agents back home to work in Israel.
I met some of these Chinese workers near Tel Aviv's Central Bus Station. It was the Jewish sabbath, which meant that all workers got a day off from work. Zhao was squatting outside a Chinese-run mobile phone shop with a compatriot from the same province, hiding from the sweltering afternoon heat.
Zhao has been in Israel for about 20 months working in various construction sites. He spoke very little Hebrew and said he was still very unaccustomed to life here.
For him, Israel was far from being the Promised Land, and this was a sentiment echoed by Wei, another worker I met.
Wei worked at a worksite just outside Tel Aviv and had come into the city to pass the day. We chatted as we walked around the neighbourhood around the bus station, an enclave of cheap housing for migrant workers.
It's nowhere as dirty as this back home, commented Wei.
This was neither the most representative nor the most glamorous part of Tel Aviv. In fact, it was a gritty, low-income area that most Tel Avians keep well away from. Groups of migrants, mostly Africans and Filipinas, gathered in their groups chatting, whiling away the sabbath. The stench of urine reeked from the pavements and rubbish laid strewn on the streets as it was left uncollected on the sabbath. A strong sense of restlessness hung in the air.
This is the Tel Aviv that most of the migrant workers know. They don't congregate on the Mediterranean beaches nor the cosmopolitan bars and restaurants that the city is famous for. Those are luxuries for the European tourists and the fun-loving locals. Occasionally shuttling between the construction site on workdays and in this grubby area on rest days, it is perhaps no wonder that several of the Chinese workers I spoke to feel Tel Aviv to be incomparable to the cities they know back home.
Even with the breakneck rate of modernisation and economic growth, China is still unable to pay its people wages comparable to what they can earn here in Israel.
Chinese cities may be a great deal less scruffy and comfortable for these workers, but the truth remains that even with the breakneck rate of modernisation and economic growth, China is still unable to pay its people wages comparable to what they can earn here in Israel.
With the new Israeli policy of terminating Chinese migrant labour on the horizon, the only question is when they have to go. When asked to comment, the Chinese ambassador to Israel, Zhao Jun, said, "It's an internal Israeli policy, and every government has the right to make its own decisions."
There appears to be little the Chinese government can or will do for these workers, and it is a waiting game now for them. In whatever time they have remaining, they are using it to earn all the shekels they have, before they are forced to return home.
"Haircut, ten shekels, second floor." A business catering to Chinese migrant workers, South Tel Aviv, Israel