Photo Credit: Dudu Greenspan / Flash 90
Overlooking the southern tip of the Dead Sea from the Judean Desert, on the road from integrated Negev city of Arad.

Residents of the Negev woke up this week to face layoffs of more than 140 workers by the Israel Chemicals’ Bromine Compounds factory.

The move comes in the wake of similar layoffs in at least three other factories around the southern Dead Sea region.

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Employees at the factory demonstrated Tuesday at the corporation’s headquarters in Be’er Sheva to express their dismay.

Dead Sea Works factory employees joined them in a solidarity move; they too face massive layoffs but are hoping to stave off the pink slips in negotiations. Israel Chemicals owns both factories.

It’s not that the corporation profits are down: the bromine industry is still very healthy, and dividends have risen. So has the salary of the CEO, according to Ynet. But many factories in the Negev have been downsizing. It costs money to move product across the vast region and the railway system that could – and should — do it most efficiently simply does not exist.

One of the centerpieces of the Netanyahu administration this term has focused on the prime minister’s vow to upgrade and update infrastructure development in southern Israel.

Residents in the Negev have heard those promises from politicians before and most have learned to accept them for what they usually are: well-meant vows that rarely materialize.

In the past several years, a massive project was undertaken to rework Negev infrastructure. An entire network of new highways are still in the process of being constructed; old roads were torn up and repaved.

But little else was done; the antiquated railway network has yet to be expanded, for instance. Although a branch line goes out to Dimona, the equally distant development town of Arad, for instance, has yet to receive one.

Once home to Motorola, the famed Arad Towels factory and a host of other manufacturers – but no longer – Arad is now struggling to survive. Numerous business firms have left for more accessible places with more favorable special business tax deals, and possibly better security. Many of the town’s founding residents have left as well.

Located at one of the farthest edges of the periphery, Arad was promised a rail line years ago but has yet to see it. There is only one road out to the Dead Sea and Be’er Sheva – Highway 31 – and if that is blocked, the residents are locked in. Good jobs are scarce in Arad, and residents who work in the closest major city – Be’er Sheva – must commute by inter-city bus to get there. That means a local bus ride of 15 to 20 minutes, another hour-long bus ride to Be’er Sheva, and then possibly a third bus ride to work, of undetermined length.

Employers in Israel often pay a stipend for travel to the job, but generally not enough to cover three bus trips each way. The work day for an average commuter in Arad lasts at least 10 hours, if not more, and it often costs their employers in productivity as well as morale and turnover.

It’s one reason some people in Arad abandon the option of traveling by bus and now travel by car. But that comes with a price as well: Those in private vehicles, like bus drivers, recently faced the risk of being pelted with rocks by young Arabs near two Bedouin towns along Highway 31. The attackers were egged on by agitators and organizers from central and northern Israel according to local sources. At least 60 suspects were rounded up and questioned after a recent attack; many were arrested.

The latest move by manufacturers at the Dead Sea is guaranteed only to exacerbate the tension and misery permeating the southern region, where development was to flourish this year in the wake of attacks by Hamas.

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