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The Tand’if Cleaning Cooperative, a model for social change – Israel News

“The cleaning industry is one of the most exploitative ones in the economy. Almost every worker who has worked in the industry has suffered exploitation on some scale during their work,” Shira Mizrahi, co-manager of the Jerusalem branch of the Tand’if Cleaning Cooperative, explained somberly.

Mizrahi, 28, who is Jewish, studied at the Shalem College in Jerusalem, where she enrolled in the Islam and Middle Eastern studies track. While working in the career department of the Jerusalem Youth Center as part of Shalem’s internship program, she dreamed of combining her two fields of passion.

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“I’m fascinated by the world of employment and career. I see this as a significant issue in a person’s life, with long-term effects,” Mizrahi said. “On the other hand, I wanted to combine my interest in Middle East affairs and the Arabic language, which I had acquired as part of the curriculum.”

She got a one-of-a-kind offer to blend the two into one and establish the Jerusalem branch of Tand’if (“cleaning” in Arabic), a unique initiative that brings together women in the cleaning industry, mainly from the Arab sector, to form a business cooperative in which they serve as both workers and owners of the business.

The cooperative is currently composed of two branches, with 60 workers in Jerusalem and 90 workers in Jisr Az-Zarqa in the North, providing services to over 25 customers, in different scopes. She established the Jerusalem branch, along with her partner, Siham. “One goal of the cooperative is to offer an alternative to the exploitation of contractor companies in the cleaning industry,” Mizrahi said.

SIHAM MOHSEN, co-manager of the Jerusalem branch: ‘Our work in the cooperative is amazing, and its importance is very high for the women from east Jerusalem and from all over the country in general.’ (credit: On Ziv)

Some of these instances of exploitation include infringement of social rights, such as non-payment of pension funds and recovery fees, working below minimum wage, not receiving a pay slip, and even child employment. 

“Unfortunately, this is a widespread phenomenon, happening all across the country on a daily basis,” she lamented. “You must remember that we’re talking about the weakest, most exploited sectors in society. Many lack basic knowledge of their rights, and experience a lack of access to that knowledge.”

A SECOND goal of Tand’if is empowerment. “This isn’t just about working under legal and deserved social terms, but it is also a chance to move forward and upward,” Mizrahi elaborated enthusiastically. “The fact that this is a cooperative means that the workers themselves are part of the owners of the business. For many of them, this is the first time that they are part of a partnership that can make decisions, plan budgets, and also make profits.”

The branch features unique training programs that further enable workers to advance, offering Hebrew courses, computers lessons, employment workshops, and more.

“The goal here is to help them advance in the employment market, and provide a bridge to a better life and a better livelihood, as well as professional advancement,” explained Mizrahi. “For instance, some of our own employees are promoted within the cooperative to management positions, training teams, and more. Today, 50% of our administrative personnel consists of workers who have advanced within the cooperative,” she said, smiling.

“Tand’if deems it crucial to work in a model of cooperation, always bringing one Jewish and one Arab manager,” she said. “I looked specifically for someone from east Jerusalem who knows the population and is able to mediate the project to the community properly and in accordance with her own cultural codes: someone whom they can trust,” she said.

“I started by making appointments with everyone in town who is considered to have connections with people worth getting to know,” Mizrahi recounted. “It took me three months until I found someone who would be perfect for the job. She had to know the community and have a lot of ambition; to know how to fight for things and make extra efforts.”

Then came Siham, Mizrahi’s partner, co-founder, and co-manager. “She built the branch brilliantly. It was crucial for us to establish connections in east Jerusalem, and this is probably the only thing that we did during the first few months,” she said. “We worked closely with the municipality, the welfare and community departments, and with local community leaders. We also launched a successful Facebook page, which helped establish our credibility.

“I feel every day how important and significant the project is for the success of the girls and their progress.”

Were there any fears from the workers to join a project in collaboration with an Israeli municipality?

Mizrahi clarified that the cooperative is not a formal project belonging to the state but rather an independent business supported by some local authorities. “This is to our advantage. The municipality supports the Hebrew courses; this was not a barrier but on the contrary a motivation for integration,” she said.

“In any case, we were pleasantly surprised to see that working with the Jerusalem Municipality actually strengthened the project in everyone’s perception: It gave it more credibility. Also partnering with the National Insurance Institution that supports the project and publicized it was, overall, positive for us.”

How did you find your first workers?

“At the beginning, it was scary for a lot of the women we tried working with. Some of them didn’t want to be associated with the cleaning industry. In the end, it was a risk we took; no one knew if it would succeed or fail. We had to look for brave people to agree to jump into the water.”

Are all your communications with your workers in Arabic?

“I have no other choice – none of our workers speak Hebrew. I arrived at a decent level at the beginning, thanks to the intensive language program at the Shalem College, but working only in Arabic the entire day teaches you even more and makes you all the more fluent. So yes, all communication is completely handled in Arabic with my workers – while I usually speak Hebrew to our customers.”

Who are the customers?

“Customers come from various backgrounds and industries. We work with The Jerusalem Post, the YMCA sports center, office buildings in Jerusalem, schools, hi-tech companies, and more. In the beginning we had to initiate most of the contacts, but today we made our name known, and many customers hear about us from their peers. Some contact us based on our added value in terms of social affairs, but many are looking for improved services, and to work with attentive and trustworthy service providers who treat the cleaning field differently.

“Our employee training programs that enable our workers to reach higher levels of professionalism and commitment. In an industry with a very high turnover rate, stability is a rare commodity.”

‘Crazy figures’

Demographics play a crucial role in Tand’if. In east Jerusalem, only 23% of women have any kind of day job.

“These are crazy figures,” the employment promoter said. “Three out of four women are unemployed. Those who do come looking for employment arrive at a relatively late age: over 30 years old. For 15% of our workers, this is the first job they ever had. They must acquire many work skills that for some may seem obvious. This includes everything from learning the Hebrew language to everyday skills such as meeting deadlines, managing tasks, coping with conflicts in the workplace, and even receiving criticism.”

These gaps may create some tense situations; however, Mizrahi explained that the management of the cooperative uses these instances to promote the workers’ skills. “We truly hold that conflict is an opportunity to improve our skills. When a conflict occurs, we make sure to speak about it openly with the workers, learn from it, and create trust – to train them to integrate into the world of employment.

“In the end, our goal is to help them improve and perhaps move on to more rewarding jobs, either in the cooperative or outside.”

Are there workers who have never met a Jew before?

“For a large majority of the workers, this is the first time they meet Jews in a direct way. Most of them either had worked for Arab managers or hadn’t worked at all. For many, there’s this element of surprise from working with Jews, discovering they’re not that terrible after all. Some even develop close relations with the customers and the staff,” Mizrachi said.

“Certainly, there is a culture shock at first. This mainly revolves around bluntness or directness of Jewish counterparts, as opposed to their own culture which is more conservative in terms of interaction between the sexes. But on the other hand, they discover that there are also many similarities between us.”

Mizrahi believes that everyday connections have a sort of magic to them. “We did not start as an organization that promotes partnership or coexistence – that was never our main goal. But we managed to build trust relations between our workers and our customers – and this can potentially affect wider circles and families regarding the way they perceive Arab-Jewish relations.”

How has the war affected your work?

“The good relations we built were particularly salient in the first days of the war, when our workers came back to work faster than any others in the industry. Like everyone else, the first days of the war were a complete shock for everyone. A few days later, we made calls to see how our workers and customers were doing. Within a week or so, we did everything we could to restore working relations, and most customers and workers expressed their willingness to return to work,” she said.

“Interestingly, some of the workers did not fear returning to work as much as the use of public transportation, as there were unbased rumors of lynchings,” Mizrahi said. “For us, it was all the more important to reduce the feelings of estrangement and fear, and we even sent Jewish volunteers to accompany our workers from Arab neighborhoods to work and back. It was amazing to see how cooperation managed to reduce tensions. Within a matter of days, most of our business returned to normal.

“The cleaning market here is based on the Arab workers, and I think both sides realized very quickly that if they want to go back to normal life, at least as normal as it can get, they had no choice but to go back to work together. Life is stronger than anything. Our societies are intertwined, and life just wins in the end,” she said.

“When you create relationships, maintain good relations and build trust, then life wins. The mere fact that our customers knew our workers and vice versa and trusted them made it easier to go back to working relations quickly. In the end, these relations also affect everyone’s wider circles and how they perceive relationships between Jews and Arabs.”

Social perks

Mizrahi described how, in the beginning of the process, they thought that the social issues of coexistence, workers’ rights, and fighting exploitation would be the biggest perk of their business when marketing outward.

“Soon enough, we discovered that it’s more of a ‘nice-to-have’ perk than a main issue for our customers. Sure, the social sense contributed, but at the end of the day our professional service and the customers’ profitability are what gets the deal closed. And in this sense, we don’t fall short and are perhaps even better than many other contractors.

“We also have another perk, which revolves around the fact that contracting us can protect the customer against legal exposure,” explained Mizrahi. “Some of our customers were exposed to lawsuits from former employees because of an exploitative contractor. According to the law, workplaces that employ an exploitative contractor are exposed to lawsuits, and in this sense we offer them complete protection.

“Then there’s also the story of the service. Our customers get to work with a serviceable and reliable cleaning provider who cares about the customer, where cleaning workers soon become an integral part of the place.”

Can you share any stories of success with workers from Tand’if?

“We have an employee named Aziza. She worked for over 15 years for a contractor and had no social rights. She would receive a slip where it said that she received a pension, but in reality no account was ever opened for her. At the age of 55, she suddenly had to find out that she hadn’t saved a penny for her pension. 

“Despite this traumatic realization, she decided to work for us, and has regained trust in the market after working for us for over two years now. Her salary has also significantly improved. She now knows exactly what she deserves, and she and her close circles will never return to working with exploitative contractors.

“Another worker of ours, Kifah, was promoted six months ago within the cooperative and will soon be promoted again to the post of operations manager in Jerusalem. She started as a kindergarten teacher in east Jerusalem but realized at one point that she did not receive all of her social rights.

“Interestingly, the first time Kifah ever met a Jew was when I interviewed her. She now describes a significant change in her life: She made much progress, enrolled in Hebrew courses, and participated in all the monthly workshops we held. A year and a half later, we promoted her to be a supervisor and instructor for all the workers in the Jerusalem branch. She made connections with all our 60 employees, assisting them with personal issues, and serving as the company’s face for our employees on a daily level.

“Another employee named Yasmin was the first worker to come and work with us. She arrived at the age of 38, with 10 children, and this was her first job ever. What motivated her is that she wanted to have her own earnings – not to be dependent on her husband as is customary in her society.

“The sense of independence of having her own income and being able to make decisions is a life-changing experience,” Mizrahi said. “Soon enough, she started earning money, managing her household financially, buying things for the children. Even her dreams began to change: to get a license, expand the scope of her work, take courses, become a bus driver… All this was not possible before she experienced work, financial independence, and professional progress.”

Are you feeling a change in the market?

“It is impossible to change the market completely, but where it’s possible, we make sure to try and help. With every new worker, we must go through a significant process of explaining the importance of social rights, how to read a pay slip, and more. But nowadays there appears to be more awareness of workers’ rights,” the employment entrepreneur said.

The year 2023 was the first one where Tand’if finished with a small yet substantial surplus, following seven years of activity. “These days, the workers will have to decide on how they want to divide the profits: Will they choose to get a personal share, or maybe do something together with the money? This, too, is an empowering experience.”

What are your thoughts when you look at all the progress the Jerusalem branch has made?

“I’m optimistic. Sure, it’s impossible to work in fields of social affairs without being optimistic, but I can really see the change in the life of each employee, in the worldview of the customers, in the relationships that are formed between the workers and the customers, in the perceptions that change for our employees toward the Jewish society and the world of employment, and even their families.

“Yes, I’m optimistic,” Mizrahi reiterated. “Jerusalem will continue to be complex for years to come, but civil society organizations generate hope and make a real and sustainable change in the lives of the people. And that’s an important goal we hope to achieve.”■

The Jerusalem Post proudly employs the services of the Tand’if Cleaning Cooperative, enjoying first-rate services of a dedicated staff, and committing to help promote social change, integration, and coexistence.

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