‘You, yes, you, my friend, come here for a second, let me show you some amazing products made from Dead Sea minerals. Give me your hand, come on, it’s OK, just a second, just let me see your hand and I’ll show you what these moisturizers can do.”
Young Israelis hawking skin care products, ostensibly made from minerals from the Dead Sea, have become a common sight in malls around the world. They grab customers passing by their kiosks and coerce them into buying overpriced cosmetics, many in an attempt to make money as quickly as possible to fund post-army travels.
But the aggressive maneuvers utilized by the Israeli salespeople, coupled with the fact that many of them are working illegally, have roused the suspicions of the FBI, US Homeland Security, embassies around the world trying to combat labor fraud, and journalists who are uncovering questionable sales tactics.
The issue came to a head in New Zealand earlier this summer, where a Dead Sea Spa kiosk in an Auckland mall was accused of swindling an elderly lady and forcing her to buy $5,000 worth of cosmetics. According to Campbell Live, the New Zealand Channel 3 TV program that first aired the story about the elderly woman, Dead Sea Spa had also charged an autistic man $4,400 for cosmetics in a half hour period, though $1,000 of the charges were not connected to products. On a separate occasion, a saleswoman sold $17,000 of products to a man with short-term memory loss who could not remember purchases he made just minutes earlier.
Campbell Live reported that the Westfield mall chain decided on July 1 to evict Dead Sea Spa from kiosks in its malls across New Zealand.
The reports exposed a dark underbelly of Israelis pursuing work around the world at mall kiosks and carts. In addition to aggressive and predatory sales tactics, the kiosks often skirt legal issues, evading local taxes and employing Israelis who do not have proper working permits.
Up to 200 Israelis can work in New Zealand each year under the working holiday program, but it is unclear if the Dead Sea Spa workers featured in the Campbell Live reports were legally employed.
The United States has had its eye on the issue since 2007.
“In the past few years, sales of Dead Sea cosmetics and skincare products at kiosks in shopping malls across America has grown into a huge industry,” reported a 2009 cable uncovered by Wikileaks from the American Embassy in Tel Aviv to the American Embassy in Rome and the US secretary of state. “A lesser-known, but problematic, aspect of the Dead Sea industry is that its personnel is comprised of many young Israelis working on tourist visas, on expired temporary work visas and on training visas. Visa issues are likely to be just the tip of the Dead Sea industry’s tax and labor issues iceberg, which has attracted Department of Homeland Security (DHS) and Department of Labor (DOL) investigators’ attention in a number of U.S. jurisdictions.”
The leaked cable explains the process through which companies advertise online and in newspapers in Israel — promising exorbitant salaries in the range of $1,500-$3,000 per week — and coach participants how to lie in their tourist visa applications for the USA. “The fact that working and receiving a U.S. salary is illegal on B1/B2s [visas which prohibit working] really does not bother them,” the cable continued. “From their perspective, ‘not many Israelis are caught.'”
Though Israelis can enter the European Union, Canada, or Australia without a visa interview, they are not allowed to work unless they get a special working holiday visa, which many Israelis do not because there are a limited number and application costs can be prohibitive.
When the Israelis arrive at their destination, their employer crowds them into a house with other kiosk employees to cut down on rent. They are forced to work shifts of up to 12 hours, sometimes 7 days a week, and receive only commissions from what they sell. A Wikileaks cable from 2010 noted that few Israelis made decent money, since employers often failed to pay fair wages and there was no way to enforce that because the workers themselves were illegal. The cable noted in a few cases some Israelis actually end up in debt. “After adding in other expenses, they ended up having to pay their employer money when they left, earning nothing, contrary to what was promised,” the cable stated.
If the workers do not meet a minimum sales requirement, they are immediately fired and thrown out of the company housing, which can be difficult if they do not know anyone else in the country.
“The financial incentive is great; post-IDF salaries are low and jobs scarce — hence their ‘need’ to find a way to quickly finance their university education and/or onward travels,” the Wikileaks cable stated.
The embassy in Tel Aviv also speculated on further “financial shenanigans” that the companies could be involved in, such as money laundering, tax evasion, crooked lawyers, and paying their workers under the table.
The industry is quite secretive. Job placement agencies operating in Israel, including Agalot Abroad, Exit Works, Maka, Fanan Jobs, and Take Job, all refused to respond to Times of Israel questions for this article. But there is plenty of information for Israelis who want to perfect the sales pitch before landing. CarTruth (mycartruth.com) has a wealth of documents, videos and links to teach Israelis headed abroad the best sales tactics.
The company trains them in predatory sales techniques. A training video uploaded to YouTube from Oversee, a company that sends Israelis to work abroad, teaches workers at Dead Sea kiosks how to canvas for sales at the mall. Open with a compliment, ask for “10 seconds of your time,” then, when the customer protests that a product is too expensive, exclaim “Well, it’s Wednesday today, so we have a bit of a promotion!” and drop the price by $20.
‘Once someone came who didn’t have enough money to pay, so the manager sent me to go with her to the ATM, so she’d go, take out money, and come back. I can’t even believe I did that’
Yigal Palmor, until recently the Foreign Ministry’s spokesman, said the ministry has labored for years to dissuade Israelis from working abroad illegally. Kiosk work selling Dead Sea products is especially injurious to Israel’s image, he added, because it is often both illegal and pushy.
“When they do something illegal or unethical, there is no question it leaves a very strong negative impression,” he said. “It leaves a very detrimental mark on people’s minds.”
“We have polled public opinion in many countries for years, and the result will surprise no one that Israelis are generally perceived to be aggressive,” Palmor added. “Naturally, if any news item seems to confirm this notion, it doesn’t help,” he said, referring to the coverage in New Zealand.
“There’s a pressure to sell as much as you can,” said Haim (not his real name), who worked at a kiosk in England. “Once someone came who didn’t have enough money to pay, so the manager sent me to go with her to the ATM, so she’d go, take out money, and come back. I can’t even believe I did that.”
“There’s a pressure. You’re not talking to people, you don’t see people — you see pounds or dollars, that’s how you relate to them,” he said. Haim added that he always told customers the Dead Sea Products were from Israel, but one day, unpacking the boxes, he saw the boxes were printed with the words “Made in the USA.”
If any legal authorities came to check on them, employees were instructed to say that they were “volunteering” in order to improve their English, Haim remembered. He lasted about two weeks before his manager said he wasn’t selling enough products and gave him just two days to leave the apartment they rented to him. Luckily, Haim met other Israelis who helped him find another job and apartment, and he got a permit to work legally.
“It’s disgusting this story [of what happened in New Zealand], the things they did. Now that I look back on it I can’t believe I did that,” he said. “In Israel, they wouldn’t do things like that, but they go abroad and there’s kind of this decline, like, ‘I can do things that I wouldn’t do in Israel, I can treat people differently.’”
But another Israeli who worked at a kiosk selling toys at a mall in Queens, New York, remembers the experience fondly. “The relationship with my bosses was really fair, and it was a really good environment, an Israeli environment. I know that’s really unusual in the kiosks,” said Arik (also not his real name). “It really helped my English, it helped my ability to sell, and I really enjoyed working there. The American customers were nicer than Israeli customers.”
The difference? Arik said he worked legally, and had an hourly wage in addition to commissions. He made $3,000 per month. The working abroad experience can be beneficial, both financially and for business skills such as language acquisition and sales techniques, if done in a regulated manner, he said.
Michael (not his real name) who runs a website where he pairs Israelis seeking employment abroad with companies who will employ them, agreed that regulation is the key for a positive experience.
The problems with overly aggressive sales techniques such as those uncovered in New Zealand and legal issues such as those in US happen among smaller companies, he explained. “They sell to elderly people, to weaker people,” he said. “[What happened in New Zealand] doesn’t help us, because there are so many small companies, everyone has their own issues. Some don’t treat workers very well. [New Zealand] is a really specific example; you can’t say the entire industry is like this.”
Michael said the trend now for Israelis, at least those who can work legally, is to try to use a placement agency like his to find employment in a high-end luxury store rather than a kiosk. “Expensive stores are different because they’re less aggressive,” he said.
The problem, however, is already widespread. “Israelis have a close-knit social network and as such, it is not hard to find peers who have worked illegally and be reassured by the fact that they were not caught,” read a Wikileaks cable from the US Tel Aviv Embassy from 2010, the latest available.
It’s part of a rite of passage for young Israelis: serve in the military, work for a bit to save money, then travel. The possibility of earning money while traveling is too tantalizing to pass up. In a desperate-sounding section, the US Embassy in Tel Aviv admits it will be impossible to catch all illegal kiosk workers because violating the terms of their visas is completely “culturally acceptable.”
And the issue is already too big to contain. The cable traces legally questionable Dead Sea kiosks to 36 US states, Australia, New Zealand, the UK, and Germany. “From 1 Oct-31 Dec 2009, [the US Embassy in] Tel Aviv issued 283 H2Bs [visas which allow work]-all for the Dead Sea industry,” the cable read. “Our experience tells us that there are far more than 283 Israelis working at kiosks across the United States — we suspect the numbers to be in the thousands.”