In Israel, A Second Career As A Bus Driver

People over-40 and over-50 who are laid off find it increasingly difficult to find a job or switch careers. But opportunities are arising in unlikely places.

Bus driver in Jerusalem
Bus driver in Jerusalem
Ari Libsker

HOLON — George Stern, 58, sets out on a new round-trip on the line 172 that starts in this coastal town south of Tel Aviv.

It is 3 p.m. and he had hoped to have a 30-minute break, but there were traffic jams on the way back to Holon. In the end, he did not even have a moment to take a break. The bus just left the station and rolls slowly towards the center of Holon.

If you were an ordinary passenger on the bus, you would not have imagined that Stern has been a bus driver for just four months.

Even Stern himself finds it hard to believe. Until the age of 57, he never would have dreamed to find himself behind the wheel of a public bus. All his life, he'd worked as an electrician in the “original Israeli high-tech” he says with a strong Romanian accent that makes him sound like he sings the words he says.

“At my age, you are the first to go, and afterwards it’s hard to find a job," Stern says. "I looked for a job in my sector for a while, but it was only minimum wage which is not easy to live on these days.”

Our conversation halts every time there’s a bus stop. In the center of Holon, the stops are packed with people and Stern has to collect the people’s money.

At one point, a woman sitting in the middle of the bus screams “you are a bad driver!” Stern is busy breaking a 200 shekels ($57) banknote. The woman screams again “why aren’t you driving?” Stern does not react. I explain to her that he is dealing with the money of another passenger, to which she answers that with all due respect, drivers can drive and deal with money at the same time.

Stern asks me to let it go. “In the past four months that I have been working here I’ve learned to be indifferent towards some people," he says with a smile. "Let her complain.”

The new bus driver explains that a local works council has agreements that will be sure he is supported until retirement age. "It is the first time in a while that I feel stable. I couldn’t continue living like as I was before."

The idea of working for Dan Bus Company came from a friend who is also a bus driver, who told him “to try it out." It took him a while before considering that option, after sitting home for a year-and-a-half jobless.

Driving to a second career

An entire generation is aware of situations like Stern’s: job security for the over-50 set is increasingly a problem in Israel. Even in his field, which is considered to be sought-after, he struggled since arriving in Israel in 1984. Poorly paid, he moved from factory to factory, to human power companies through contractors.

Now, after 60 hours of driving classes and training, he is one of the 350 people older than 40 who became drivers for the Dan company in the past five years. Most of them had been laid off recently and discovered that there is little place in the Israeli work market for older people.

Dan Company represents, with a twist of irony, a rare symbol of hope. “We are not doing this for philanthropic reasons”, says Dan company CEO, Shmuel Refaeli, “We actually need drivers. We need to replace 60 to 70 drivers who retire every year. And we are also expanding. Therefore, we need to recruit 100 drivers every year. Most of our drivers are past 45 years old, so we know that they make better drivers.”

He adds, to punctuate his company's situation: “20 year olds don’t want to become bus drivers.”

That is exactly the point. What keeps away the young from a job driving a bus is what attracts older people, having a choice. Young people have the choice and opportunities of doing something else, while people over-40 are discovering that those options are vanishing.

The salary at Dan Bus Company is hardly incredible, but not insulting either. A new driver working a standard, full-time shift of six days a week earns a gross salary of $2,300. That can be boosted by working night shifts and weekends. “There are many advantages in this job,” says CEO Refaeli. “It is not hard physical work, and you don’t stay at the same place all day. You also work with people." And not all of them complain about your driving.

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Ecological Angst In India, A Mining Dumpsite As Neighbor

Local villagers in western India have been forced to live with a mining waste site on the edge of town. What happens when you wake up one day and the giant mound of industrial waste has imploded?

The mining dumpsite is situated just outside of the Badi village in the coastal state of Gujarat

Sukanya Shantha

BADI — Last week, when the men and women from the Bharwad community in this small village in western India stepped out for their daily work to herd livestock, they were greeted with a strange sight.

The 20-meter-high small hill that had formed at the open-cast mining dumpsite had suddenly sunk. Unsure of the reason behind the sudden caving-in, they immediately informed other villagers. In no time, word had traveled far, even drawing the attention of environment specialists and activists from outside town.

This mining dumpsite situated less than 500 meters outside of the Badi village in the coastal state of Gujarat has been a matter of serious concern ever since the Gujarat Power Corporation Limited began lignite mining work here in early 2017. The power plant is run by the Power Gujarat State Electricity Corporation Limited, which was previously known as the Bhavnagar Energy Company Ltd.

Vasudev Gohil, a 43-year-old resident of Badi village says that though the dumping site is technically situated outside the village, locals must pass the area on a daily basis.

"We are constantly on tenterhooks and looking for danger signs," he says. Indeed, their state of alert is how the sudden change in the shape of the dumpsite was noticed in the first place.

Can you trust environmental officials?

For someone visiting the place for the first time, the changes may not stand out. "But we have lived all our lives here, we know every little detail of this village. And when a 150-meter-long stretch cave-in by over 25-30 feet, the change can't be overlooked," Gohil adds.

This is not the first time that the dumpsite has worried local residents. Last November, a large part of the flattened part of the dumpsite had developed deep cracks and several flat areas had suddenly got elevated. While the officials had attributed this significant elevation to the high pressure of water in the upper strata of soil in the region, environment experts had pointed to seismic activities. The change is evident even today, nearly a year since it happened.

It could have sunk because of the rain.

After the recent incident, when the villagers raised an alarm and sent a written complaint to the regional Gujarat Pollution Control Board, an official visit to the site was arranged, along with the district administration and the mining department.

The regional pollution board officer Bhavnagar, A.G. Oza, insists the changes "aren't worrisome" and attributes it to the weather.

"The area received heavy rain this time. It is possible that the soil could have sunk in because of the rain," he tells The Wire. The Board, he says, along with the mining department, is now trying to assess if the caving-in had any impact on the ground surface.

"We visited the site as soon as a complaint was made. Samples have already been sent to the laboratory and we will have a clear idea only once the reports are made available," Oza adds.

Women from the Surkha village have to travel several kilometers to find potable water

Sukanya Shantha/The Wire

A questionable claim

That the dumpsite had sunk in was noticeable for at least three days between October 1 and 3, but Rohit Prajapati of an environmental watchdog group Paryavaran Suraksha Samiti, noted that it was not the first time.

"This is the third time in four years that something so strange is happening. It is a disaster in the making and the authorities ought to examine the root cause of the problem," Prajapati says, adding that the department has repeatedly failed to properly address the issue.

He also contests the GPCB's claim that excess rain could lead to something so drastic. "Then why was similar impact not seen on other dumping sites in the region? One cannot arrive at conclusions for geological changes without a deeper study of them," he says. "It can have deadly implications."

Living in pollution

The villagers have also accused the GPCB of overlooking their complaint of water pollution which has rendered a large part of the land, most importantly, the gauchar or grazing land, useless.

"In the absence of a wall or a barrier, the pollutant has freely mixed with the water bodies here and has slowly started polluting both our soil and water," complains 23- year-old Nikul Kantharia.

He says ever since the mining project took off in the region, he, like most other villagers has been forced to take his livestock farther away to graze. "Nothing grows on the grazing land anymore and the grass closer to the dumpsite makes our cattle ill," Kantharia claims.

The mining work should have been stopped long ago

Prajapati and Bharat Jambucha, a well-known environmental activist and proponent of organic farming from the region, both point to blatant violations of environmental laws in the execution of mining work, with at least 12 violations cited by local officials. "But nothing happened after that. Mining work has continued without any hassles," Jambucha says. Among some glaring violations include the absence of a boundary wall around the dumping site and proper disposal of mining effluents.

The mining work has also continued without a most basic requirement – effluent treatment plant and sewage treatment plant at the mining site, Prajapati points out. "The mining work should have been stopped long ago. And the company should have been levied a heavy fine. But no such thing happened," he adds.

In some villages, the groundwater level has depleted over the past few years and villagers attribute it to the mining project. Women from Surkha village travel several kilometers outside for potable water. "This is new. Until five years ago, we had some water in the village and did not have to lug water every day," says Shilaben Kantharia.

The mine has affected the landscape around the villages

Sukanya Shantha/The Wire

Resisting lignite mining

The lignite mining project has a long history of resistance. Agricultural land, along with grazing land were acquired from the cluster of 12 adjoining villages in the coastal Ghogha taluka between 1994 and 1997. The locals estimate that villagers here lost anything between 40-100% of their land to the project. "We were paid a standard Rs 40,000 per bigha," Narendra, a local photographer, says.

The money, Narendra says, felt decent in 1994 but for those who had been dependent on this land, the years to come proved very challenging. "Several villagers have now taken a small patch of land in the neighboring villages on lease and are cultivating cotton and groundnut there," Narendra says.

They were dependent on others' land for work.

Bharat Jambucha says things get further complicated for the communities which were historically landless. "Most families belonging to the Dalit or other marginalized populations in the region never owned any land. They were dependent on others' land for work. Once villagers lost their land to the project, the landless were pushed out of the village," he adds. His organization, Prakrutik Kheti Juth, has been at the forefront, fighting for the rights of the villages affected in the lignite mining project.

In 2017, when the mining project finally took off, villagers from across 12 villages protested. The demonstration was disrupted after police used force and beat many protesters. More than 350 of them were booked for rioting.

The villagers, however, did not give up. Protests and hunger strikes have continued from time to time. A few villagers even sent a letter to the President of India threatening that they would commit suicide if the government did not return their land.

"We let them have our land for over 20 years," says Gohil.

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