RAMALLAH (IRIN) - If the Israeli Ministry of Finance manages to push through some reforms as part of the proposed 2009 budget, there may soon be almost no Palestinian workers in Israel’s construction sector.
“We are supporting a plan where the idea is to increase the number of Israelis in the workforce,” an official at the Ministry of Finance told IRIN on condition of anonymity.
“We want to create a situation where there is no interest in hiring Palestinian workers instead of Israeli ones,” he added.
According to initial estimates — based on Israeli government statistics and non-governmental organization (NGO) data — some 15,000 Palestinian workers in the sector would be at risk of losing their jobs. Given unemployment and lower wages in the Occupied Palestinian Territories, this would be a blow to the local economy, especially in the West Bank from where most of the Palestinians come.
A Finance Ministry spokesman, Shlomi Shefer, confirmed to IRIN that the relevant section of the budget proposal submitted by the ministry was indeed meant to limit the number of Palestinian workers — and migrant workers in general — in Israel in order to reduce Israeli unemployment and get citizens into the workforce. This was part of an overall policy.
The government voted and passed a budget on 25 August after hours of debate, but it will only become clear on 31 August if the government voted “yes” on this part of the budget, as the records will only be released then. The overall budget still needs parliamentary approval in a few months time.
Already, Gazans are not allowed into Israel for work, and most West Bank laborers do not have the necessary permit to enter.
The Palestinian work force in Israel has shrunk by at least two-thirds in the nearly 15 years since the start of the Oslo peace process, according to government and NGO data.
Planned tax on Palestinian workers
The new plan would include imposing an annual tax (of about US $1,000) — roughly equivalent to a monthly minimum wage salary — on each Palestinian worker in the construction sector, making them financially less attractive to employ.
The Finance Ministry said this was part of an overall plan to decrease the number of non-Israelis, while enticing Israelis to work in what are known as “wet jobs” in the local parlance, involving tough and messy physical labor.
In addition to solving Israeli unemployment issues, the ministry said it needed to make certain there was a constant supply of labor, as Palestinian entry permits can be revoked in times of unrest.
Better wages for Israelis
Israel’s Channel 10 TV recently reported that the ministry gave nearly US $10 million to the Association of Contractors and Builders to help them absorb Israelis into the work force. The incentives include a better wage than the one currently paid to Palestinians, and benefits, including a free holiday.
Hannah Zohar, from the Workers’ Hotline, an Israeli NGO based in Tel Aviv, said this was just the start.
“In my opinion, this will likely extend to other sectors as well, not just construction,” she said.
She was also concerned that by imposing the tax, Palestinians would be abused, possibly by forcing them to cover the taxes from their own salaries, with employers taking advantage of their desperate situation. Already, reports of mistreatment are common, particularly in settlements, where there is little enforcement of labor laws.
The Workers’ Hotline recently reported that in one Israeli factory in the West Bank, Palestinian men were making only about NIS 10 (US $2.8) an hour, while women were earning as little as NIS 6 ($1.68) — a third of the required hourly minimum wage.
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