‘Planned crackdown puts whole business sectors at risk’

Ya'acov Katz expresses concern over possible gov't-sanctioned operation to deport foreign workers.

February 8, 2010 23:07
3 minute read.
A demo for children of migrant workers.

migrant workers children 311 . (photo credit: Ariel Jerozolimski)

The cabinet-approved plan to reduce the number of foreign workers in Israel would lead to the destruction of the agriculture and construction sectors, Knesset Foreign Workers Committee Chairman Ya’acov Katz said Monday, as his committee met to discuss the issue.

During the debate, the committee heard from representatives from the different ministries, with Katz repeatedly asking them if they were aware that reducing the number of foreign workers would hike housing costs and make it nearly impossible for Arava farmers to continue their work.

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“I examined the cabinet decision and am deeply bothered that not enough attention was given to the issues that will arise as a result,” said Katz. “If the government makes a decision to deport foreign workers, it has to consider the outcomes and find alternative solutions to the problems.

“Because of a shortage of foreign workers in the construction sector the average time it takes to build a housing complex has more than doubled from 12 months to 25 months,” said Katz, adding that this was a major contribution to climbing housing costs.

Katz also addressed the issue of the shortage of foreign workers in the agricultural sector and said that without additional workers, many farmers would have to go out of business.

“Israeli farmers are the salt of the earth, they are very capable and resilient, but without foreign hands they cannot do their work and reach their export markets in Europe,” he said.

Katz said he had recently visited farmers in the South and seen that whole greenhouses were full of vegetables that would probably rot because of the shortage of labor.

The Prime Minister’s Office representative to the committee reiterated the government’s belief that foreign workers were taking up jobs that would otherwise be filled by Israelis, and that their expulsion would free up jobs and raise wages.

The Finance Ministry representative said it was impossible to blame the increase in housing costs on a shortage of foreign workers and said that the real reason was a shortage of available land for construction. She also said that the government decision had no effect on entrance quotas for foreign workers and that it was only concerned with illegal workers.

The new plan, which was proposed by an interministerial panel made up of representatives from the Finance, Justice and Interior ministries, aims to reduce the number of illegal workers by going after the employers.

The plan includes increased fines for those employing illegals, changing taxation policies so that those who employ illegal workers won’t receive tax benefits from their employment and increasing penalties on employment agencies that charge exorbitant fees from those who want to work in Israel.

The plan also limits 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 work permit. Those who are found not to be working in their designated sector for more than 90 days will be deported.

Hadash MK Dov Henin said the government plan wasn’t serious and described it as “a collection of populist slogans, irresponsible declarations and outright incitement.

“The foreign workers are here because the government brought them here and now it’s blaming them for all of Israel’s ills,” said Henin. “We brought them here thinking they were like machines and now we are surprised to find out they are real people.”

Meir Shpigler, head of the Interior Ministry’s Foreign Workers Unit, said that the only sector where the number of foreign workers was increasing was the caregiving sector.

He said his unit was doing everything it could to decrease the number of foreign workers who were defrauded and exploited by employment agencies and said that the cabinet decision gives them additional tools to fight the “ugly phenomenon” in the criminal and administrative arenas.

Migrant Workers Hotline representative Sigal Rozen said that the government decision contradicted a High Court of Justice ruling that determined it was illegal to bind workers to their employers.

“We don’t know how it plans to square that when the law goes into effect,” said Rozen.

Katz concluded the discussion by calling on the government to sort out how it planned to train Israeli workers before getting rid of the foreign workers, warning that otherwise whole sectors could collapse.

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