According to a policy paper released this month by the National Insurance Institute, the percentage of workers being paid less than the minimum wage ranges from 10 to 12 percent.
The latest data are from 2011, but the report concludes that the government is making progress in combating the phenomenon by increasing the number of officials devoted to enforcing the law.
The authors note, however, that the primary victims are more likely to be new immigrants, Arabs and foreign workers.
A closer examination reveals more troubling problems.
The agricultural sector is the worst offender, with some 30% of employees being paid less than they deserve. Twenty-two percent of those working in the events or food industry – catering weddings, for example – are also disastrously underpaid.
Caregivers and housecleaners are similarly exploited.
Perhaps surprisingly, construction workers are not considered to be disproportionately denied minimum wage.
What the report reveals is a startling level of discrimination against the weakest members of society: new immigrants who don’t know their rights, single women, migrant workers and Arabs.
This exposes sectors of the country that are quick to take advantage of those who don’t speak Hebrew, people who come from poor backgrounds and work jobs where they are open to exploitation. This is particularly egregious when it comes to new immigrants, people who have arrived in Israel to live the Zionist dream and are 50% more likely to be underpaid because their employers take advantage of them. For instance, young people – particularly single women – are underpaid in the catering industry.
The minimum wage in Israel is NIS 23.12 an hour, or NIS 4,300 a month. Workers are entitled to 36 continuous hours off per week.
Israelis face a difficult time making ends meet; they already pay more for apartments and cars than their OECD counterparts. Prices have been increasing greatly in recent years, and the minimum wage is not keeping up.
Crackdowns by the industry, trade and labor ministry found violations in the restaurant sector, with employees forced to work 17-hour days, as well as demobilized soldiers hired to work in Eilat who worked 15- hour days, all without the proper pay.
The Hotline for Migrant Workers notes: “Ever since the introduction of migrant labor in Israel in the 1990s, their employment has been fraught with problems and rights violations are rampant. The most frequent abuses are underpayment, excessive working hours [and] neglecting to pay for medical insurance.”
In one case where agricultural communities were offered legal migrant labor, kibbutzim turned down the initiative when they were told they would have to pay minimum wage. This points to a culture of salary abuse in the agricultural sector, as confirmed in the NII report.
According to a report prepared by the Knesset for the OECD in November 2012, there are 51,926 foreign workers employed in caregiving and 23,000 legally employed in agriculture. The same report estimated there were 95,000 people residing illegally in Israel and an additional 64,000 “infiltrators” who came via Sinai.
The large number of illegal migrants has fed a system of underpayment.
To counteract the abuses, the government should devote increased resources to the investigatory capacity of the ministry in charge. Employers found to be violating the law are liable to face criminal charges that can result in prison terms or fines.
However, without more resources devoted to enforcement and making examples of large employers who routinely violate the law, a culture of responsibility will not be created. If caterers and hotels feel they can violate with impunity the rights of single women and new immigrants from places as diverse as the US and Ethiopia, then the problem is not being addressed.
Confronting the phenomenon of illegal migrants employed in agriculture being underpaid requires more innovative methods, such as making materials available to these groups in their native language and encouraging anonymous reporting that is followed up on.
The agriculture sector was once perceived as the Zionist ideal. It should not be tarnished with an image of widespread abuse of the weakest and poorest members of society.
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