Mujeres mediterráneas -

The Role of Arab Women In Israeli Economy

By Michal Schwartz
11th March 2006


For the last 5 years, the Workers Advice Center (WAC), has been struggling to find jobs for Arab men in Israel, especially in the construction professions. WAC was doing this as a part the struggle against poverty of the Arab population in Israel.

The Hanitzotz Publishing House (HPH) on its part had worked with Arab house-wives on gender issues and empowerment since the early 90’s. One may ask why at the time the HPH did not concentrate on finding jobs for Arab women?

The answer is clear. The question of jobs to Arab women was not an urgent matter in the early 90s. There was plenty of work for men (and women, if they wanted to) and the income was decent. Furthermore, Israel was still a welfare state, and the social security supported all families with children allowances, unemployment benefits, and subsistence allowance for those who could not work. That is why there was no real incentive for married Arab women to work, unless they were professionals. Those who did work in manual jobs, worked only until they married, to collect a dowry.

Another factor was what is called "customs and habits", which assume that the Arab woman’s role is to raise her family, and discourages her from working outside her home with strangers.


Since 1996, Israeli economy went through drastic changes, embarking on an aggressive global market economy, in harmony with the USA neo liberalism. The Israeli state cut social allowances by half. Arab families, which usually have 4 children or more, were most affected. For example, a family with 5 children and a head of the family who did not work received before 1996 some 700 Euro as subsistence and 500 Euro for children allowances, together 1200 Euro. After the cuts, such a family gets only 450 Euro for subsistence, and 160 euro for children, together 610 euro - half of what it used to get.

In addition, traditional branches of economy where Arab women (and men), used to work were closed down and moved to other countries. On the other hand Israel implemented a new policy of importing foreign workers by manpower companies, who filled the traditional economic branches with cheap laborers who have no rights. Unemployment in Israel grew very high, especially among the Arabs who occupy the role of manual laborers in Israel.

Among the branches that were affected we can mention:

1. Agriculture, a traditional branch of work for Arab women, became occupied by imported Thai workers, who live and work like slaves without any rights.

2. The textile industries, a traditional place of work to Arab women, closed down one after the other, and reopened in Jordan, Egypt, Romania, and China, where the minimum wages are much lower than in Israel.

3. Nursing the old and sick at homes and hospitals, where many Arab women found work, was taken by workers from the Philippines, brought under the same conditions as the Thai workers.

The result was growing poverty, which affected the Arabs most, and the Arab women even more. Poverty among the Arabs reaches 45%, three times as much of the poverty among the Jewish citizens (15%).

A new government plan called "from welfare to work" (the Wisconsin plan) proved a fraud. It is supposed to train people to work, but because there are no jobs, it forces the participants, many among them women, to do voluntary work all week, without providing work, or solutions for the children while they "volunteer". This project only deepens poverty instead of curing it. Private companies run the project for making profits, so it is part of the privatization of the economy.

To this picture, one has to add Israeli policy of discrimination against the Arab population, which means that Arab villages lack infrastructure, industries, child care centers, transportation, hospitals, government offices, colleges and universities, and in general job opportunities.

Thus the Israeli economic policy pushed the Majority of Arab women to the traditional role of mothers and house-wives, while cutting government subsidies in such a way that left these women very little to give their children except poverty and frustration. As poverty and despair spread, the influence of the Islamic movement grew, further discouraging women from going out to work. Only 17% of the Arab women work or seek work. Statistics do not reflect the real unemployment of Arab women, they refer only to those 17% who seek work, and not to the 83% who don’t.


A year ago, both WAC and the HPH reached the conclusion that a change should be made. WAC reached the conclusion that the time has come for a vigorous policy of finding work for Arab women, first and above all in agriculture, where a great number of women used to work in the past. HPH on its part realized that we must switch our efforts from doing gender work with house wives to working women, and adjust the schedule and content of the gender program to the needs of the working woman. The Reasons for the turn were twofold.

1. As WAC, we realized that as long as Arab women did not work, the Arab society can not emerge from its state of poverty. Even if the Arab male has a steady salary of 1200 euro, supporting a wife and 4 children throws him immediately under the poverty line. Because in the last ten years the economic situation of the Arabs in Israel deteriorated, the only way to break the vicious circle of poverty was to open a massive recruitment campaign for women. Working woman are the key to the development of the Arab society. On the other hand, we estimated that poverty is pushing Arab women of all ages and marital status to search for work. They have no other choice!

2. On the same line, WAC together with the Syndiana of the Galilee (a Fair Trade organization) decided to teach women handicrafts, to give them additional income. There were already two courses of basket weaving, and Syndiana took upon itself to export the products. A course in production of honey is being prepared these days.

3. As HPH, we realized that the basis of women’s empowerment is work, in condition that it is organized work with full social rights. No real empowerment can occur in women’s lives as long as they remain dependent economically and confined to their houses. On the other hand, when women go to work, their whole lives become dynamic, and true development can occur.

As we realized this, two questions remained to be answered:

1. Will the Arab women accept this concept and meet the challenge?

2. Can we really cause change in government policy and reoccupy agriculture and other job opportunities?

A YEAR OF EXPERIENCE: Women say yes to work.

The beginning was slow. Most growers prefer the cheap and handy Thai workers. But some agreed to employ local Arab women and pay them their full rights. As the first group of women from Kufer Qara started to work last March in agriculture, they met skeptic response from husbands and from society at-large. A woman going out to work in agriculture means that her husband failed to support her. Work in agriculture suffers from a stigma of being hard and physical, and therefore does not enjoy respect. You work for 16 euro a day (instead of the minimum wages of 28.5 euro a day) with no legal or unionist protection. Yet female workers of WAC soon realized that they enjoy minimum wages and have full legal rights and union protection, while the HPH supplements the work with weekly meeting of women’s empowerment. Working together during the day, in the meetings, strong solidarity and commitment is established between the workers, much stronger than with house wives. The women feel that WAC and HPH were giving them respect as workers, as women, as mothers, and showing real interest in all aspects of their lives. This made them disciples of going to work among other women.

The word spread around and changed the atmosphere around them. Even in the village of Um al-Fahem, which is very traditional, and women usually stay home, women began to knock at the doors of WAC asking for work. Hundreds of women have already registered for work at the WAC offices. The more WAC can find working opportunities, the more women will come forward and ask for work.

Arab workers say yes:

In order to facilitate the process, WAC opened a campaign among its male workers, explaining that the only way to fight poverty is to let the women work too, if they so chose. This campaign went surprisingly well, and the workers fully support it, thus adding to the changed atmosphere in the village.

Work and politics:

As you know, on March 28 there is a general elections in Israel, and politics is in the air. The agricultural workers are going through a politization process. The majority of these female agricultural workers support the initiative of the Organization of Democratic Action (ODA) to establish a grass root workers party. Some or these women made a further step, and become electoral candidates for the workers party. This is a precedent in Arab villages, where women, and workers, are not expected to participate in politics. These women would not dream of such a step before they began to work.

Changing policies:

The main obstacle in integrating Arab women into work is the government policy of importing foreign laborers in conditions of semi slavery. On this arena WAC and other social organizations are waging a struggle to change government policy, whereas the ODA is waging the battle on the political arena. It is not an easy struggle, as there is a very strong agricultural lobby in the government, but there is slow progress.

On March 8th, international women’s day, women agricultural workers will demonstrate in Tel Aviv opposite government offices, asking for a change in policy that will create jobs. This demonstration will signify that the question of Arab women’s right to work is put on the agenda for the first time, and that Arab women are beginning to struggle for their rights, rather than stay passively in the homes. Globalized economy marginalizes women workers exploits them and leave them unorganized and defenseless. The only answer to this situation for women is to fight back for jobs, to organize, and to raise their voice on the political arena.

WAC is waging this battle on the trade union level, while The Organization of Democratic Action (ODA) is waging this battle on the political level. Our experience with Arab women in Israel shows that it is possible.

Michal Schwartz

Michal Schwartz is coordinator of gender work in HPH, in collaboration with WAC.