Israel’s shortage of Arab construction workers could lead to resurgence of Jewish labor

As coronavirus restrictions in Judea and Samaria stop the flow of Arab laborers, Jewish Israelis are being recruited to work in the construction industry.

By Lauren Marcus, World Israel News

The Crisis and Opportunity Project, launched this Sunday, is an initiative with the goal of recruiting and training thousands of unemployed Israelis as construction workers.

More than one million Israelis have filed for unemployment benefits since the beginning of the coronavirus crisis. Israel’s current unemployment rate of 26 percent is the highest ever for the Jewish state.

The project is a collaborative effort between the Israel Builders Association, the Fund for Development of the Construction Industry and Zionism 2000, led by Roni Dwek with the Cassato Family Foundation.

A main aim of the project is to fill vacancies in the industry, as tens of thousands of Arab laborers from Judea and Samaria who usually work at construction sites throughout Israel are now unable to travel due to coronavirus restrictions.

The construction industry is exempt from the Ministry of Health’s regulations regarding the number of employees at a workplace. Construction work in Israel has continued as normal, largely immune to the coronavirus pandemic’s economic fallout felt throughout other industries in the country.

The first phase of the project began by focusing on connecting Israelis who had previous work experience in the construction industry with contractors in urgent need of workers. Electricians, welders, roofers, and others were matched with employers to immediately begin work on sites.

The initial phase was so successful that the project has been expanded to focus on outreach to unemployed Israelis who may be interested in a career change. The Crisis and Opportunity Project has asked for lists of those who filed for unemployment benefits, to encourage them to enter their construction worker training program.

Yehuda Kattab, Chair of the Tel Aviv and Central District Contractors and Builders Association, told Ynet that a company he owns recently recruited a worker through the project’s framework.

He said, “We’re happy to give an opportunity for Israeli workers to connect with the construction industry, which offers some of the highest salaries in the economy at the moment. A total beginner in the construction industry can earn 8,000 shekels a month.”

The Israel Builders Association and other groups are calling on the Ministry of Finance to release an 80 million shekel budget, allocated four years ago, for construction industry workers’ training. In the past year and a half, around 6000 workers were trained via this route, but the Histadrut claims that the budget has been frozen.

Yitzhak Moyal, chair of the Construction Workers’ Union, sent an open letter to Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu and Finance Minister Moshe Kahlon, urging them to “allow for continued employment and training. The entire industry is ready with one click to absorb tens of thousands of workers into good jobs in the construction industry.”

“We need the state to support us and collaborate with us on how to change and adapt training to the needs of the market,” he wrote. “We want to bring young blood into the industry. If the state contributes, we will be able to employ a lot of people.”

The Finance Ministry responded in a statement saying, “The agreement with the Foundation for Encouraging and Developing the Construction Industry in Israel has come to an end, after several extensions from the State.”

“As part of the establishment of the new government and with the approval of a state budget, the new government will allocate funding to projects that could not be funded in the previous emergency situation. The funding will be allotted in accordance with the priority set for each project, and steps will be taken to make sure that funding for professional training will be included in the budget.”