African migrants walk in front of the entrance to Holot open detention center in the Negev .
(photo credit: REUTERS)
The government should grant 50,000 temporary work visas to African migrants, valid for five years, a member of the Committee to Fight Poverty told a Knesset panel on Tuesday.
Prof. Yossi Zeira made the comments at a hearing of the Knesset Committee on Foreign Workers, which discussed his own committee’s recommendations regarding the employment of foreign workers.
The Committee to Fight Poverty called for a reduction in hiring foreign workers and encouraged employing Israelis in the workforce, in an effort to increase household income and reduce poverty among Israelis over time.
Zeira, a professor of economics at the Hebrew University of Jerusalem, cited the example of the country’s construction industry, which he said had developed in the early years of the state and remained stagnant since 1970, while other industries had continued to grow.
He noted that “1970 is the year that foreign workers began working in the sector – initially Palestinians, who were considered foreign workers and [whom] we employed in no less deplorable conditions than [those of] the foreign workers today.”
He argued that cheap labor did not increase productivity, nor should it “be replaced by machinery and equipment.”
“If you allow immigrants from Africa to work, and minimize the necessary work permits for foreign workers, [this] will reduce the supply [of workers], and then wages will rise, and this will bring Israeli workers back to the industry,” he said.
Zeira added that employment services had originally rejected this proposal and that it had met with opposition from several groups. However, he believed there was room to re-address the proposal following the recent High Court of Justice ruling to close the Holot detention facility, which had been holding illegal migrants.
In June, the Committee to Fight Poverty – an external body that the Welfare and Social Services Ministry had tasked with formulating a plan to reduce the number of people living in poverty – released its long-awaited recommendations, which will cost an estimated NIS 7 billion to implement.
The committee was responsible for making recommendations about the actions the state would need to take to combat poverty in all aspects of life.
The panel included 50 representatives from academia, nonprofit organizations, business, government ministries and municipalities. It established five subcommittees to make specific recommendations about, respectively, the economy and employment, family and community, housing, education, and health.
The committee called to reduce the country’s poverty rate to meet the OECD average of 11% within 10 years.
The only way to accomplish this goal, its report said, was to adopt and begin implementing all the recommendations within the next three to five years.
To date, however, only a fraction of the budget necessary to implement the recommendations has been allocated.
According to the committee’s findings, Israel has one of the world’s highest rates of employing foreign workers, who make up 9% of the total workforce.
Among the recommendations was a call to ban foreign workers from the construction industry while allowing them to work in agriculture and nursing care – two fields in which Israelis are generally unable or unwilling to work.
Yehudit Carmi, a representative of the Agriculture Ministry, told the Knesset panel that “the need in agriculture is for 42,000 foreign workers. There is a program for seasonal workers. The problem is that they do not arrive on time. If a farmer needs a worker in September and he arrives in November, he no longer has what to do with him. We need foreign workers all over Israel, not just in the Arava. They have no substitute. There are not enough Israelis who want and are able to work in agriculture.”
MK Shimon Solomon (Yesh Atid) of the Committee on Foreign Workers said that to date there was no clear policy regarding the employment of foreign workers and that the government had largely turned a blind eye to the problem.
According to Solomon, many of the African migrants are young and educated and have a strong desire to work to earn a living. He also said his committee wanted to rehabilitate south Tel Aviv, where a large number of foreign workers reside.
Committee on Foreign Workers chairwoman Michal Rozin concluded that “some of the recommendations are worthwhile; others we need to reexamine.
But there is no doubt that without financial backing for the recommendations and without a long-term plan, the situation will not improve – not in five years, and not in 10 years.”