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The Supreme Court recently ruled that the system governing migrant worker in Israel, which binds each worker to a single employer, is illegal. This system effectively enables employers to force whatever form of exploitation and abuse they choose on legally employed migrant workers, under pain of loss of legal status, deportation and an unpayable debt (migrant workers must borrow thousands of dollars, illegally charged by middlemen and employers, to obtain legal work permits). Here is what the court thinks about the binding of workers to employers:
Indeed, one must conclude - painfully and shamefully - that the migrant worker became the employer's serf; that binding workers to employers created a form of modern slavery. In this binding arrangement the state shackled the workers' hands and feet to the employer who "imported" them - nothing less. The migrant worker turned from a subject of law - a person who has rights and obligations under the law - into an object of law, as if he were a piece of property. This arrangement infringed on the autonomy of workers, and practically denied them their liberty. According to the binding arrangement the workers became machinesâ€¦ slaves of olden days, like the people who built the pyramids or rowed Roman ships into war.
Those of us who have been conducting the legal battle against binding for so many years couldn't have hoped for a more articulate and conclusive statement form the court. Nevertheless, the vicissitudes of this struggle - which is far from over - can teach us quite a bit about the Supreme Court-legislative relationship, and about the dynamic of social struggles in Israel.
AT FIRST glance, the ruling constitutes a blatant manifestation of juridical intervention. The court discards a policy set by elected representatives because the policy appears to contradict basic laws concerning dignity and liberty. The court seems to ever-so-powerfully, perhaps too powerfully, override the government's decision.
Petitions by pro-worker interest groups against binding have been in the works for many years. In the previous round of litigation the court, which hesitated to trespass on the state's turf, accepted the state's solution of limited portability for migrant workers between employers. This limited portability was possible only under highly restrictive conditions, and subject to a bureaucratic procedure, which workers could not handle alone.
It proved to be nothing but a cosmetic change. Workers remained enslaved, and did not have genuine access to portability.
I suspect that the outcome of the current ruling, which appears to be much more adamant, will eventually not be very different. The court has indicated that it is too recent to judge the policy of binding workers to placement agencies (rather than employers), which has been implemented since last year for migrant construction workers. The state is therefore likely to extend this scheme to migrant agriculture and home nursing workers as well.
Since binding workers to placement agencies has been around for almost a year now, NGOs like Kav LaOved are well acquainted with the impact of this scheme. Migrant workers are practically as bad off as they used to be when they were bound to employers. The main difference is that now there is another middleman making money off their hard work, and therefore workers must pay higher illegally charged commissions.
What the court did not feel free to do was impose upon the state the policy suggested by NGOs: allow migrant workers to change employers at will within a certain industry (such as construction, agriculture or home nursing). What we all take for granted - the right to quit and seek alternative employment - should not be denied any human being.
The point is not only to protect migrant workers, but to protect Israeli workers too. If migrants have the freedom to change jobs at will, and if they have access to proper enforcement of labor rights (a privilege that today even Israeli workers don't have), migrant workers will be able to bargain for the salaries. This way, foreign workers will not be cheaper to employ than Israelis, and their presence in Israel will be subject to genuine demand rather than to unfair competition with local workers.
Equal rights for migrant workers is good not only for the migrant workers, it is also good for the Israeli labor market, and especially for unskilled workers.
Which leads me to the next lesson: solidarity between underprivileged groups is necessarily more productive than internal struggles. When the underprivileged fight each other they all lose, and help the strong become stronger.
Indeed, within days of the Supreme Court's ruling, groups representing disabled people protested, and petitioned to review the ruling. Disabled people know that if caregivers are free to quit at will and have a better bargaining position, disabled employers will have to pay caregivers higher wages.
As a result groups representing the disabled set out to infringe on the rights of foreign workers to dignity and liberty. One disadvantaged group fights another for its share of the scraps the establishment throws them.
Rather than fight among those who are made weak by the powers that be, migrant workers and disabled people should lead a common struggle: a united front for better conditions to migrants, and for a welfare policy which would allow the disabled to employ them under better conditions.
Imagine a reality where caregivers work shifts rather than 24 hours on end, or where disabled people share their time between a day-center and their homes. The disabled would be better off because they would receive better care and have contact with more people. The foreign workers would be better off because they would be able to have a private life and enjoy better employment conditions.
Even Israeli workers would be better off, because the door would be opened for them to work shifts as caregivers under reasonable conditions.
The writer is a board member for worker rights NGO Kav LaOved - Worker's Hotline.