Something to build on

Rehovot’s last remaining green fields come into view, unfolding beneath the sheet metal and wire fence elevator that is shimmying up the side of an unfinished apartment building. Rafi Halaf doesn’t notice. He’s focused on this skeleton of a structure, this tower of concrete strewn with sawdust and sand. There’s something inside he wants us to see.

Stepping carefully over piles of pipes and navigating our way past boarded-up, empty elevator shafts, we pass a man crouching on the ground, pounding tiles into what will eventually be someone’s elegant dining-room floor.

“You see this Chinese guy here, laying down tile?” Halaf says, as if he is about to reveal a secret. “What I want to see is Moshe and Itzik doing this work.”

Moshe and Itzik, of course, are just stereotypical Israeli names – names rarely heard on construction sites in Israel, where foreign workers like the Chinese tiler are ubiquitous. Together with agriculture, the construction industry dominates the market for foreign workers in this country; their voracious appetite for Asians and Eastern Europeans frustrates the Treasury and the Bank of Israel, which see this as detrimental to the economy.

At the Tidhar construction company, Halaf is leading a project to change the situation. Called “Aharai,” or “After me,” in the style of the IDF combat units’ recruiting call, the project offers incentives for young men who have recently mustered out of the army to join the company in building apartment complexes. The project is bearing fruit and gaining fans: Although it has brought only a modest number of Israelis into the construction industry in the past year, Aharai is already being hailed as a success by the Building Contractors Association and a model for other companies to emulate. Two weeks ago, the Treasury devoted NIS 30 million to expanding Tidhar’s program to the rest of the industry.

This might not seem like much. But it’s a symbolic victory in a battle that had been assumed to have been lost – and, many hope, the start of a dramatic turnaround.

SOME 150,000 Israelis currently work in construction, about 55 percent of them Jews. Another 50,000 or more foreign workers have been expelled and, until now, repeated attempts at persuading Israelis – especially Jews – to take their place have failed.

In a way, that’s strange. An entire generation of Israelis grew up on the tales of “Hebrew labor,” of proud “new Jews” who were not weak, bookish types but strong and industrious folks who drained the swamps of Galilee and literally laid the groundwork for the Jewish state’s development. Why, then, have that generation’s children avoided construction work?

“Because,” Halaf says, “the guy who drained the swamps worked really hard and got paid peanuts, so he told his kids to learn a better profession. He said, ‘This just isn’t worth it.’ We want to show today’s young men that construction work can be worthwhile.”

The package that Tidhar has come up with is indeed worthwhile: In the first month on the job, which is primarily training, recruits are paid a gross salary of NIS 6,000. From the second month on, they earn NIS 7,000. Once they show they’re capable, they start earning according to how much work they do. Their expenses are minimal, as they share an apartment, rent-free, are driven to and from the construction site and are provided with lunch. Tidhar also pays them a grant for staying with the company long-term.

“We’re talking about guys who are looking to make some money after their army service,” Halaf says. “If they stay with us for six months, they receive a NIS 4,000 grant from the government for working in a ‘priority industry.’ At that point, most of the guys take the money and go off to travel in India or Thailand or wherever.

“But we would like to see them stay on with us, so we offer them further grants. We hope that they’ll see that, if they do remain in this business, they can go on to become work supervisors, site managers, etc. There are possibilities.”

At the construction site in Rehovot, Halaf shows off Amnon and Nir, two of his star pupils, as examples of what can be accomplished. The two 23-year-olds, who grew up together in Kfar Shammai, near Safed, have been with the company for a year and for nine months, respectively, but they already have the look of experienced craftsmen.

Standing astride folding ladders, deftly swinging their legs to maneuver them, “walking” them around as if on stilts, the young men drill frames into place for drywall that will become the face of living rooms and lobbies.

They’re here for the money, and for the opportunity to turn a first job into a long-lasting career. It definitely beats work as a pizza delivery guy or anything else they could have done back home.

“If I weren’t here,” Nir says, “I’d probably be helping my father on the farm.” That wouldn’t be nearly as much fun, he implies.

During a lunch break, the handful of Israeli workers sit together in the work site office to eat. They let loose, joking about each other and planning a company soccer match for the next day, building camaraderie. Afterward, half the guys go out to smoke cigarettes. “Occupational hazard,” they say.

Back inside the building, the Israelis and the Chinese workers who do the more laborious tasks share a congenial relationship, observing a mild separation that is not forced, but a natural consequence of the barriers of language and culture.

A few of the Chinese file through the room where Amnon and Nir are working, with all nodding in greeting. “Ni hao?” one says, offering the Mandarin for “How are you?” Then he adds, in Hebrew, “Yafeh” – “fine.” One stops to give impromptu kung fu lessons to Amnon and Nir. They all laugh as Nir struggles to grasp the intricacies of a particular move, with their instructor gesturing patiently and repeating, in Hebrew, “kacha” – “like this.”

It’s clear the young men enjoy themselves, that they don’t feel overwhelmed by their work. It’s also clear, though, that they know how to work; after a minute’s play they’re back at their drills and humming through another round of drywall. They’re at the construction site by 6:30 in the morning, and often stay well into the evening – “As much as the light will allow,” Amnon says.

Their motivation is simple: cash. Now that they have proven themselves, they get paid for as much as they’re willing to do. “If you bust your ass,” Amnon says, “you can make really good money.”

Both men hope to stay on, continuing to learn more sides of the trade and make their way from the folding ladder to the corporate ladder. “Oh, definitely,” says Nir. “We don’t want to be drywall guys forever.”

Halaf laughs at the young men’s ambition, saying, “As in any business, you don’t start out as a manager. When I first started out, I was carrying bags of concrete.” At the same time, he encourages them to strive.

“Don’t let them know I said so, because they’ll get a big head over it,” he whispers, “but guys like these are our future.”

MONEY IS what drives the success of the program, as far as the recruits are concerned. Not so for the company.

From a purely economic standpoint, it makes sense for contractors to hire foreigners, as they cost a whopping 40 percent less than Israelis. So why should companies pay money from their own pocket to entice Israelis to take construction jobs, even encouraging them to demand higher salaries?

“It’s about ideology,” Halaf says. “I see how important it is for this country to develop its own workforce. It’s also about the way you educate your kids. When I take my kids to a construction site, they have a great time. Then they come home and tell their mother that they want to learn how to install a floor, or become a carpenter, or something else in construction.

“But every Jewish mother wants her son to become a lawyer or a doctor, or anything but a construction worker. So what does my wife say? ‘No way! You’re going to be an astronaut. You’re going to be a pilot. You’re going to be a computer engineer.’ Well, you know what? Not everyone can be a doctor or a programmer. So why not work in construction?”

There is also a value, Halaf says, to inculcating a sense of pride in literally building the state – and rewards that can be hard to measure.

“You see those finished buildings over here? I helped construct them. When I look at those buildings, I know that I helped build this country, and that’s a great feeling. When a building is finished and you hand over the key to an apartment to someone who is going to make that their home, it’s a tremendous feeling.”

Amnon and Nir agree it’s a thrill to see a building take shape, though they don’t usually get to see it completed. As strictly drywall experts, they move from site to site, as they’re needed, every few weeks. They also see the addition of more Jews to the construction sector as an “extra.” But they wouldn’t have stuck it out this far if the job hadn’t turned out to be a pleasant surprise.

“When you suggest to a young man today that he go into the construction business,” Halaf says, “he answers, ‘What, I should go become a schlepper?!’ People don’t realize that this job is not nearly as physical as it used to be.

“I remember when I was 16 years old, having to carry cinder blocks on my shoulder up several flights of stairs. Can you imagine? Do you know what it’s like to carry 450 of those things up stairs? It takes all day. Nowadays, though, a crane picks up the whole lot of cinder blocks and puts them down wherever you need them, while you take an elevator up. It’s a different world.”

The work is by no means easy, with shifts typically lasting from 6:30 in the morning to 6:30 at night. Despite the long hours, though, Amnon, Nir and the rest of those in the Aharai program don’t let the work cramp their social lives. Usually, they say, they have the energy upon getting home to shower and go out for the evening.

“People think this is still the old-style, very labor-intensive kind of construction work. They don’t realize how much the field has changed, how mechanical it has become.”

SO TURNING around the construction industry is about money, it’s about ideology and it’s about image. Those are a lot of things to change, but Halaf allows himself some fantasy.

“There’s this cliché about a little boy walking with his father, where his eyes light up and he says, ‘Look, daddy, a soldier!’ The thing is, from a young age, we all learn to view our soldiers as heroes, as people to emulate and idolize. Well, this may sound funny,” Halaf says, “but what I want to see is a little boy’s eyes lighting up and him saying, ‘Look, daddy, a construction worker!'”

Halaf believes this will happen, in time. He sees a “revolution” on the horizon for construction hiring practices, with waves of Israelis replacing foreign workers.

“I have another 25 years to go before my retirement,” he says, “and I believe I’ll see this revolution completed by then.”

While all those Jewish mothers may need that long to get used to the idea, clearly there are some who have already warmed up to it.

“If you don’t care about wearing a tie and sitting in an air-conditioned office all day,” Amnon says, cradling his drill, “why wouldn’t you want to do this?”

A blueprint gone bad

Exact numbers are hard to come by, but figures from the Central Bureau of Statistics and other government sources indicate a peak of some 300,000 foreign workers here in 2001. The trend can be traced to 1993, when an economic boom drove up demand for low-skilled labor while, simultaneously, security fears over Palestinian workers put a clamp on supply. By the early part of this decade, as unemployment soared past the 11 percent mark and foreign workers made up more than a 10th of the labor force, the country’s reliance on foreigners went from an afterthought to a major talking point and the target of intense criticism within the government.

In 2003, as finance minister, Binyamin Netanyahu raised the tax that employers paid for foreign workers’ salaries. The move was meant to make foreign labor less economical for contractors, and to make hiring Israelis seem less expensive, by comparison.

“Many foreigners occupy jobs like a tenant occupies a room,” Dr. Michel Strawczynski, deputy head of research at Bank of Israel, said in 2003, defending the government’s crackdown on foreign workers. “When the foreigner leaves his job, it becomes vacant like a room does.”

By expelling illegal foreign workers from the country and reducing the number of legal foreign workers allowed to enter, the government’s hope has been that a plethora of employment “rooms” will be vacated, and that Israelis will seek to occupy them.

But they haven’t.

Although Strawczynski credited the expulsion of tens of thousands of foreign workers for a strong increase in Israelis employed in construction five years ago, that phenomenon has proven since then to have been an anomaly.

Contractors complain that they are suffering from a shortage of about 50,000 workers – a figure that, not coincidentally, roughly equals the number of foreign workers the construction industry has lost to the government’s cutbacks in quotas.

To some extent, demands to reinstate the high levels of foreign workers can be attributed to the financial interests of manpower companies that “supply” employers with cheap laborers. But much of that self-interest has been exposed, and has died down accordingly, while genuine efforts to recruit Israelis have consistently failed.

In 2004, just two years into a 10-year plan to train unemployed Jews for construction work, the Building Contractors Association pulled the plug on the program after only 75 people showed interest. A similar course, run by the Industry, Trade and Labor Ministry that included Arabs, drew well over 800.

With that kind of turnout, industry leaders despaired of ever seeing Israelis replace the foreign legion of laborers that had been sent packing.

“In some cases,” Strawczynski allowed back in 2003, at the height of the deportations, “the job-room analogy does not hold true. When the foreigner leaves, he takes his job with him.”

The question is why this is so. Why have efforts to attract Israelis to jobs in construction failed until now, and why is Tidhar’s “Aharai” program working?

“More than anything,” Strawczynski explained, “it is a function of money. The more the foreigner gets paid, the better the chances that his job will be similar to a room which can be vacated for an Israeli.”

That’s one reason Netanyahu raised taxes on employers of foreign workers. But it’s also why failing to pay Israelis higher wages for the work that foreigners were doing doomed the effort from the start.

Until now, beginning construction workers in Israel earned about 10-15% less than the average salary, while their Western European and US counterparts made 10-15% more than the average salary. Previous government incentive programs only partially closed this gap, which is largely why those programs failed. Tidhar’s model, in which new workers earn salaries and other financial incentives that can compete with the job market as a whole, seems to be the first model that can break that losing record on recruitment.

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