A drip irrigation farm..
(photo credit: REUTERS)
For over a quarter of a century Israel has been recruiting myriads of labor migrants. It has also tolerated similar numbers of illegal ones. At a peak point, the Labor and Welfare Ministry registered 13 percent of the workforce as “foreigners,” mainly in the agriculture, construction and care giving sectors. This rate places Israel ahead of France, Germany, Norway, the Netherlands and Sweden as one of the world’s top-recruiting countries. In the past decade the numbers of legal and illegal labor migrants from East Europe, the Far East, Latin America and West Africa decreased, but there was an unexpected rise in numbers of asylum seekers (known in Israeli law as “infiltrators”), predominantly from Eritrea and Sudan. These trends resulted in approximately 150,000 non-Israeli migrants in the Israeli labor market.
Fearing economic and demographic consequences for the Jewish state, successive Israeli governments neither recognized nor accounted for this migration, and refrained from formulating a comprehensive policy on it. One important exception was a recent change made to the recruitment process of labor migrants.
NGOs, members of Knesset, the State Comptroller and the Supreme Court consistently criticized the exorbitantly high, illegal fees which were levied on the migrants by private agencies in both their countries of origin and in Israel, and which enabled the consequent abuse of their rights.
The government decided in 2005 to take over these recruitment processes, expropriate them from private agencies and anchor them in bilateral agreements with other governments.
Despite severe pressures and threats from various interest groups, the Thailand-Israel Cooperation on the Placement of Workers (TIC) agreement was signed in 2010, with the International Organization for Migration (IOM) managing and supervising the process. The TIC was followed by further bilateral agreements with the governments of Bulgaria, Moldova and Romania in 2011- 2014.
The success of these agreements in improving the recruitment processes in the agriculture and construction sectors is demonstrated in a new study by Professor Raijman of Haifa University and Dr. Kushnirovich of the Rupin Academic Center, as well as in separate reports produced by the Israeli Center for International Migration & Integration (CIMI) and the IOM. Job opportunities in Israel are publicized through official government channels rather than word of mouth, and now 100% of migrants independently apply for work with no brokers or intermediaries.
Most importantly, recruitment fees were cut dramatically: for example, a Thai worker now pays $2,200 instead of $9,149. This frees workers from the need to finance their migration through extreme measures like mortgaging their houses or relying on black market loans, and instead they increasingly can afford the process with their existing personal capital.
By not being financially bound to their employers, workers are much less prone to abuse, and much more likely to report it. This also means Israel becomes more attractive to migrant workers – 97% of Thai workers in Israel now wish to complete their stay in the country.
Israel’s reform of the recruitment process is a groundbreaking and rare example of a government taking on a responsibility it didn’t have, in an increasingly globalized international market in which privatization of existing services is the rule. The reform is now threatened by a recent decision of Finance Minister Moshe Kahlon, to recruit 20,000 Chinese construction workers without a bilateral agreement with China. The minister’s considerations are more than appropriate: to expedite construction in order to lower housing prices, thereby to fulfill his main election promise. China is reluctant to sign an agreement with Israel. The official reason is that it doesn’t want its workers to build in the settlements in the occupied territories, but in fact other considerations – like protecting a network of Chinese recruitment agencies that pay off corrupt government officials – may also play a part in its position.
Recruitment without an agreement has dire consequences for the human rights of Chinese workers: in 2010 some reported to have paid an astronomical sum of more than $30,000 as fees for migrating to Israel (when the average annual wages at the time were approx. $5,160). This results inferior safety standards and other violations of workers’ right at construction sites, which labor migrants are afraid to report when having such high debts. Recruitment from China was halted in 2011, but now Kahlon needs progress made in the construction sector, and it needs to happen fast. Even at the price of re-institutionalizing a local form of Chinese torture. After all, who knows how long it’ll be before the next elections? Recruitment through bilateral agreements guarantees the dignity of workers and safeguards the good name of the country. It is an ongoing process of reform, with many hurdles yet to be overcome: only last January Human Rights Watch highlighted the ineffective inspection and enforcement regime against employers who break labor laws in employment of Thai workers. Furthermore, the biggest part of the labor migrant population in Israel – domestic caregivers – is still being recruited through private agencies. Reintroducing such a recruitment process into the construction sector might not only subject the Chinese workers to inescapable violations of their human rights by Israeli employers. It might also undermine the prospects of workers from other countries too to be recruited in a humane way.
Kahlon’s party is called Kulanu – “All of Us” – but his hasty decision, which re-enables the abuse of migrant workers, reflects a very narrow, short-term and self-serving type of thinking. In light of the pressing need for workers, it is strange that Kahlon overlooks a population of 45,000 mostly healthy, highly motivated and readily available young Eritreans and Sudanese in Israel.
Why not meet the needs of the construction sector with existing African hands, rather than with new ones from China? They reside in the country with Temporary Protection Status, so they may not be forced back to their home countries. All on their own, they struggle to find stable income.
Does this context not make them – and other workers’ groups who will be affected by Kahlon’s initiative – also part of All of Us? Kahlon ought to reconsider his position and keep recruitment in our hands.The author is a PhD student at the Goethe University in Frankfurt.