The High Court of Justice on Thursday ruled that employers will no longer have the power to determine whether foreign workers in their employ may continue to work in Israel or be expelled for violating the terms of their visa.
The ruling applies to foreign workers in the agricultural, industrial and care-giving sectors, but not the construction sector. It was handed down unanimously by Supreme Court President Aharon Barak, recently retired Deputy Supreme Court President Mishael Cheshin and Justice Edmond Levy.
Levy, who wrote the main opinion, said that the system of "chaining" foreign workers to their employers violated their human rights. "It causes injury to the inherent right to liberty," wrote Levy. "It causes injury to the human right to freedom of action. It negates the autonomy of free will. It tramples the basic right to extricate oneself from a work contract. It denies the most basic power of those who are already weak to negotiate work conditions. In doing all of the above, the arrangement of chaining the worker to his employer causes injury to his dignity and freedom in their most basic sense."
Cheshin described the chaining system as "modern slavery." According to the system that was in practice until now, the Interior Ministry granted entry permits and visas to foreign workers at the request of employers who received authorization to hire them from the Ministry of Industry and Commerce. On the basis of that authorization, the Interior Ministry granted the foreign worker an entry permit and visa. However, these were conditional on the fact that the worker remained in the employ of the employer who had made the original request throughout his stay in Israel. In fact, the name of the employer was included in the worker's visa. A worker who left his employer was regarded as having violated the visa and became an illegal alien.
The petitioners included Kav La'oved, Hotline for Migrant Workers, the Association for Civil Rights in Israel, Physicians for Human Rights, the Adva Center and the Commitment to Peace and Social Justice Organization. They charged that the system of enforced dependency of the workers on their employers placed them at the latter's mercy and created injustices including illegal trafficking, imprisonment, refusal of employers to pay wages and confiscation of passports.
The workers were even more vulnerable because many of them had paid large sums of money to work contractors in their own countries, often taking out loans or mortgaging their homes to pay for the opportunity of working in Israel. They figured they would be able to repay the loans from their earnings in Israel, but if they were deported before they could do so, they would lose everything they had.
The petition was filed on May 28, 2005. Soon afterwards, the state adopted a new regulation granting foreign workers the right to change employers, on condition that the original employer gave his consent. Recently, the government has established a new system for dealing with foreign workers in the building sector.
In its decision, the court ruled that the new regulation did little to improve the plight of the foreign workers. It decided to give the new system introduced for construction workers more time to see whether it protected the workers' basic rights.
However, it ruled that the chaining system applied in the other three sectors was illegal and gave the state six months to devise a new system "which will not be based on the chaining of the worker who comes to Israel to a single employer and will refrain from linking the worker's decision to quit his job to any sanction whatsoever, including losing his status in Israel."
At the end of his long and earnestly written decision, Levy added: "The individuals around whom this petition revolved... were invited by the state to come and work here... They were ready to perform difficult work that local people were no longer willing to do. They were willing to do it for low salaries, without social benefits and sometimes under genuinely injurious work conditions.
"We must not exploit their distress... We, we in particular, for whom the bitter taste of exile is not unfamiliar, for we know what it is to be a stranger, since we were strangers in the land of Egypt."