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Monday, November 26, 2007

Making It

The Husband and I are living here on pensions. Yes, we're really that old.

However, we know people who work in the Police Department, in Bituach Leumi, who teach, who work in high-tech---all people who through whatever fortuitous circumstance, get a paycheck on a regular basis and have benefits.

I've also come to know folks who own their own businesses, whether it is a design showroom, an appliance business, or coffee shop or restaurant.

These folks, either as owner-operators or as civil servants, have the security of a regular paycheck (albeit in the case of teachers, a disgracefully small one) or income.

I've also come to recognize that there is a very large component of Israelis that work hard and live pretty much hand-to-mouth. I know from Yossi that no one gets rich driving a taxi: money varies from day to day depending on the weather, the political situation, the season and other variables. I know from the waitresses at several of my favorite coffee shops, as well as shop clerks, that they all work more than one job, because who can survive on minimum wage plus tips?

There are also a significant number of folks who struggle to get by on "temp" jobs or what we used to think of as 'entry-level' jobs--except that those jobs last forever at the same pitiful salary. I know a woman who had a good job---and then her outfit decided to downsize her hours a bit more every quarter until she finally took an early retirement. At the point where she retired, her retirement paid more than her constantly-decreasing monthly salary did at the end. I know another woman with a good entry-level position---and after three years, she is still working the same 'entry-level' position at minimum wage, and the office manager refuses to train her for a more advanced position on the grounds that she is a "temp." Yep, she was hired from a temp agency at slave wages and came to work with the understanding that the office would train her as a secretary. Never happened. (There is currently legislation pending that would make this wide-spread practice of "temp" slave labor illegal: the legislation proposes that if one takes a job as a "temp" and remains in that job for over nine months, the employer is obliged to hire the worker and provide benefits). She can't leave because she needs the income; she can't leave because her supervisor has told her that she won't get a letter of recommendation if she leaves ("You should be grateful that you have a job"), yet she can't advance or make more money.

Many of the folks struggling to get by on minimum wage are happy to have it--there are positions out there (such as working as a security guard) where oftentimes the minimum wage is merely on paper and in fact the worker makes much less. Those who are less than delighted at the long hours and poor pay recognize the economic reality that a job is better than no job.

How does the Israeli working class 'make it' in this economy?

Connections. Protexia. It's not a dirty word--it's a life-saver.

My dryer suddenly stopped working one day last winter. I called a repair company and was told, hey, we'll get to you in the next couple of weeks--if we remember.

Of course, I told Yossi that I was disappointed that I couldn't convince anyone in my lousy Hebrew that this was important and could you please come today or tomorrow.

"Al tidagi, Sarah," he reassured me. He made a phone call, connected with a former neighbor whose kids were friends with Yossi's kids, chatted a few minutes about the children, then explained that he needed a favor ('tovah' in Hebrew, my lesson of the day--yes, as an adjective it's 'good' but it also means 'favor').

Former neighbor arrived within an hour with a tool kit. He pulled down the drier from its perch, pulled it into the living room, disassembled it in front of me, and found that the drive-band-thingy had broken. He went out to his truck to get a replacement, found he didn't have the correct band, then drove to the hardware store and bought the correct replacement band, then came back and put it on the drum. Then he reassembled the drier, dragged it back through the kitchen and lifted it up to its shelf.

"Try it," he told me. It worked beautifully.

"Thank you so much!" I enthused. "How much?"

"Do you need a receipt?" he asked me.

Huh? What do I need a receipt for? Well, maybe for the landlord, but gee, how much are we talking about here?

"No, not really," I said, still puzzled.

"200 shekels," he replied.

No, I don't need a receipt if its only 200 shekels. I gave him 200 shekels, something to drink, and cleaned and bandaged the small cut he got taking our drier apart. I was simply grateful that Yossi knew someone who would do him 'a favor.'

It took me months to figure this out, but while yes, it was a 'favor,' it was also business. The former neighbor is a repairman who works for one of those big repair companies I called in vain. He goes to the jobs as he is dispatched, and he is paid a salary that is more, but not a lot more, than minimum wage. He's a blue-collar guy with a tool-box. The 'favor' worked both ways---he used his lunch hour to come out and fix my off-the-books drier, and I didn't have to wait weeks for a repairman. And he took the money "black" meaning that what I paid him is off the books as well.

Is it illegal? I'm sure it must be. Does it mean he has groceries this week and his kids get cheese in their sandwiches instead of just hummous? You bet.

I've seen multiple examples of this since then. Someone needs a painter. Joe-the-painter, who is the neighbor's cousin, works extra hours at night after leaving his company to make "black money" on his own time--which means that he can survive his minimum wage job and still feed his kids, pay his rent and buy groceries. Sam-the-carpenter and Avi-the-car-mechanic also work those 'extra' hours for 'black money.'

"Black money" is the secret to the survival of the Israeli working poor. It drives the tax authorities crazy and even more so than in the States, workers' tax returns are examined and audited.

I'm not in favor of tax evasion.......I pay mine and always have, but I've had the security of a paycheck every two weeks in a civil service job that also came with benefits. I didn't have to figure out where I was going to get the money to pay for my kid's root canal (no, dentistry is not in most of the health baskets in Israel) or schoolbooks (something the parents pay for, not the school system).

I could wax all prosecutorial and law-and-orderish about this, I suppose, but in all fairness, I can't get too excited about "black money" survival in Israel. Maybe if bankers and MKs weren't so grossly overpaid; maybe if our politicians and bureaucrats weren't awash in financial corruption; and maybe if the government spent as much time enforcing the labor laws and pegging the minimum wage at a decent level, I would feel differently. Maybe if the government even paid teachers a professional salary.... But as long as the labor laws are ignored, as long as minimum wage is ridiculous, as long as workers have virtually no avenue of appeal (who among the working poor can afford a lawyer? At $150/hour--that's dollars, not shekels--the average Jill and Joe Worker isn't going to hire counsel -- especially if getting a lawyer means not paying the rent this month) then I'm not going to get bent out of shape over "black money" as a survival mechanism for the working class of Israel.

What is just and what is legal are not always synomymous.


Anonymous Anonymous said...

Beautifully written. The trick to being Israeli is becoming part of the black economy....I think many of the people who don't financially make it, are uncomfortable with the concept, but it truly isn't what you know, but who you know.

Tuesday, November 27, 2007 at 3:03:00 PM GMT+2  
Blogger Jack Steiner said...

Here in LA it is not all that different, at least when it comes to working with Israelis. If you know the right people you not only will always be employed, there is always someone who can help you out.

Tuesday, November 27, 2007 at 4:17:00 PM GMT+2  
Blogger aliyah06 said...

safranit--thanks! "who you know" is definitely more important here -- now I better understand the Israeli friends we had in the States who were always asking us if we had 'connections' to help with things like parking tickets (no, we didn't--couldn't fix my own tickets much less anyone else's).

jack--ditto above; never worked in LA but sounds like the Israeli protexia system is well grounded down there (which is a good thing).

Tuesday, November 27, 2007 at 7:32:00 PM GMT+2  
Blogger Emah S said...

...*ahem* I believe and hope that Yossi said to you al tidaGI hee hee!

One of these days I'll go black with English tutoring. And you know what they say.........once you go black, you never go back! hmmm.... "they" weren't talking about this, were they?

hee hee! sorry, couldn't resist!

Tuesday, November 27, 2007 at 7:54:00 PM GMT+2  
Blogger aliyah06 said...

emah s--I stand corrected; at tzodeket, Yossi amarli 'al tidagi' --I need to put a disclaimer on this blog that all Hebrew errors are mine and not attributable to Yossi or any other Israelis quoted....

...and no, (grin) they weren't talking about money, honey!

Tuesday, November 27, 2007 at 8:03:00 PM GMT+2  

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