Gov't to target hiring of illegal foreign workers

Steinitz says moves will create up to 50,000 jobs • Expert calls plan "science fiction," insisting foreigners do jobs that Israelis won't.

January 25, 2010 03:33
Gov't to target hiring of illegal foreign workers

foreign workers 88 248. (photo credit: Mya Guarnieri)

The cabinet on Sunday approved a plan to reduce the number of illegal foreign workers in Israel, which Finance Minister Yuval Steinitz said would free up 30,000-50,000 jobs for Israelis.

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The new plan, which was proposed by an interministerial team from the Finance, Justice and Interior ministries, aims to reduce the number of illegal workers, mainly by going after their employers. The plan proposes to toughen enforcement through increased fines, change taxation policies so that those who employ illegal foreign workers won't receive tax benefits from their employment, and increase penalties on employment agencies that charge exorbitant fees from those who want to work in Israel.

"The plan is meant to address the labor market," said Prime Minister Binyamin Netanyahu, at a joint press conference with Steinitz and Justice Minister Yaakov Neeman.

"Our commitment is first and foremost to our own poor," he said. "We cannot demand and encourage the haredi and Arab populations to take part in the labor force and at the same time allow the jobs they are supposed perform to be filled by illegal foreign workers."

Netanyahu said the massive influx of foreign workers in the last few years carries security concerns, introduced or aggravated existing problems of drug use and human trafficking and erodes wages, affecting first and foremost non-skilled and uneducated populations.

"There is another aspect too," said Netanyahu. "The State of Israel is a Jewish and democratic state. We want to ensure that we will continue to be a state for Jews, but with full rights to those who are not Jewish; to enable those citizens to find jobs and earn their wages with dignity."

Steinitz linked the new plan to the recent OECD report, which criticized Israel's employment market, pointing to large income gaps and unequal access to women, haredim and minorities.

He said the plan would reduce the number of illegal foreign workers by 30,000-50,000 and that the jobs would go to the underrepresented sectors. "In this way we will be able to return to pre-crisis employment figures," he said.

The new plan aims to force agencies that import workers for jobs in the caretaking sector to pay the workers for a full year's employment.

This is meant to encourage them to keep the workers on longer and not rush to import a new worker from abroad. To this end, a database of unemployed caregivers with permits will be established.

Until now, foreign workers who lost their job due to the death of their employer, or for other reasons, were at risk of losing their work permit. The employment agencies, which make money by importing new workers, were not compelled to first seek to place those already here. The result became termed the "revolving door," as new migrant workers were given permits while the existing ones lost their status and were subject to deportation.

The plan also puts limits on the type of work a foreign worker can do. Every migrant worker who enters Israel will be designated for a specific sector, which will appear on his or her permit, and will be forbidden from crossing over to other sectors.

Those who are found not to be working in their designated sector for more than 90 days will be deported.

As of December, there were approximately 255,000 foreign workers here, constituting 10.4% of the labor force.

Approximately 125,000 are illegal workers. Roughly 77,000 legal foreign workers are employed in such fields as nursing, agriculture, construction, and the ethnic Asian restaurant industry. In addition, about 28,000 Palestinian workers enter Israel legally every day.

Shevy Korzen, executive director of the Migrant Workers' Hotline, an organization that aids foreign workers, said the new plan has little in the way of real change.

"If it was a real reform we would accept it wholeheartedly, but when you look at the plan, there is little in it that is new. It is mostly populist grandstanding mixed with touches of xenophobia.

"This is far from the comprehensive immigration policy that is needed," said Korzen. "There is no real solution here because it doesn't deal with the root of the problem. The state proposes to fix its unemployment problems by tackling foreign workers. It's as if these people fell on us from the sky and not as a result of the government itself importing the workers."

Korzen said that every year the government increases the number of permits for foreign workers and then pushes them into unemployment and loss of their legal status by not properly regulating the work force.

"We've seen this happen before. The government comes out with announcements such as these and follows up on it by deporting several thousands of illegal workers, but continues to bring new ones in, so the sum amount doesn't really change," said Korzen.

Korzen also criticized the ministers for using xenophobic language.

"The foreign workers are a convenient scapegoat and easy targets. In most other countries, you hear things like what the ministers are saying only on the right-wing fringes of society. Here the prime minister and the ministers allow themselves to blame the workers for the results of long-term government policies," she said.

Dr. Roby Nathanson, director-general of the Macro Center for Political Economics in Tel Aviv, said the new plan was "science fiction." He said that the idea of removing 30,000 illegal workers and replacing them with Israeli workers is something the government would not be able to do.

"Ariel Sharon proposed something similar when he first came into power. He formed the immigration police, but they only managed to deport 3,000-4,000 people a year and Israelis never took their place," said Nathanson.

Nathanson said that deporting such a large amount of people would cost the government a fortune and would probably not result in new jobs for Israelis.

"Israel, like many other countries, has a foreign workforce of 10 percent and like in other countries, they perform jobs that the local population aren't interested in doing. I'm talking about the 'three Ds' - jobs that are dirty, difficult or dangerous," said Nathanson.

"I'd suggest that the ministers have a good read of the OECD report, which makes valuable recommendations regarding labor market policy, instead of looking to blame the foreigners for our problems."

In a related development, the Ministerial Committee on Legislation approved a bill that would grant permanent status to hitherto temporary legislation against providing aid to illegal sojourners, a law aimed at primarily at blocking illegal workers from the West Bank.

The law was originally approved in 1996, but only only on a provisional basis and has had to be periodically renewed by the Knesset. It is currently due to expire on March 31.

The bill seeks to increase the punishment for certain aspects of transporting illegal Palestinian workers into Israel.

The cases include making changes in the vehicle to conceal passengers, transporting at least six passengers into Israel at the same time, and cases in which a project manager organizes the transportation.

The punishment will be up to five years in prison if the suspect is the manager, or organizer of a network aimed at smuggling large numbers of illegal aliens into Israel.

Dan Izenberg contributed to this report.

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