'Foreign workers' plight to worsen with gov't-approved plan'

New scheme seeks to reduce number of illegal foreign workers by toughening fines and removing tax benefits for employers.

January 25, 2010 23:27
3 minute read.
A demo for children of migrant workers.

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


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Workers' rights organizations say a new plan to reduce the number of illegal migrant workers in Israel will not solve Israel's migrant worker problem, and could make the humanitarian situation faced by such workers worse.

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The new plan, approved by the cabinet on Sunday, seeks to reduce the number of illegal foreign workers by toughening fines and removing tax benefits for those who employ them.

The plan also requires manpower agencies who import workers for the caretaking industry to pay them for a full year's employment, to encourage them to reassign workers who lose their jobs, rather than importing new ones.

Dana Shakked, spokesperson for the Kav La'oved workers' rights organization, said if the government does not find a means of first capping the number of legal workers brought to Israel, the number of illegal workers deported will not make a difference, citing the over 120,000 permits for foreign workers approved by the Netanyahu government in 2009.

Under the new plan, every migrant worker will be approved only for a specific sector and will not be able to work in other fields. Those who are not employed in their approved sector after 90 days will face deportation.

Shakked said she expects the new provision to lead to a far higher number of people coming to her organization complaining of abuse, because they will be bound to a specific form of employment which could potentially deter them from leaving an abusive employer.

"We will see more terrified people trapped with nowhere to go," Shakked said.

Shakked said the main downside of the proposal is that it doesn't properly address the problem of the "revolving door" system, in which legal foreign workers who have lost their jobs following the death of an employer or other reasons, lose their legal status and are deported, while new foreign workers brought in to replace them.

Shakked also took issue with the brokerage fees demanded from migrant workers by manpower agencies, which can reach into the tens of thousands of dollars.

Shakked said Kav La'oved "feels the government has slapped us in the face." She rejected Prime Minister Binyamin Netanyahu's contention Sunday that the new program would free up jobs for unemployed Israelis, with Finance Minister Yuval Steinitz putting the number at 30,000 to 50,000 jobs.

"If this was the case, then why would the government invite these workers? Why would they approve their permits?" Shakked said, adding that the difficulty in getting Israelis to work in agriculture, caretaking, and construction is the reason the government invited migrant workers to Israel in the first place.

The Hotline for Migrant Workers' Tel Aviv headquarters appeared rather sedate on Monday afternoon, with two volunteers assisting African migrant workers at desks in the main office.

Shevy Korzen, executive director of the organization, said that most of the people the organization assists are in detention facilities, and the office is rarely crowded with clients.

Korzen said that limiting migrant workers to a specific field of employment could lead to an influx of formerly legal foreign workers coming to her office for help after finding themselves illegal and facing deportation because they are unable to find work before their 90-day grace period is up.

Korzen said that if the government was serious about reducing the number of foreign workers in Israel they would work to end the revolving door by capping the number of foreign workers allowed to enter Israel and the fees charged by manpower agencies.

Korzen described an "absurd" reality in which human rights organizations want the government to close the door to migrant workers, and the government seeks to keep it open.

Both Shakked and Korzen slammed Netanyahu's statement that the influx of foreign workers has brought security concerns and worsened social problems such as drug use and crime, calling it "racist" and a form of fear-mongering intended to scapegoat the foreign workers, instead of the government that invited them in the first place.

At a conference held by the Israel Manufacturers Association in Tel Aviv last Thursday, Netanyahu threatened that "the rise in the infiltration of illegal foreign workers could turn into a flood" adding "we have created a Jewish and democratic nation and we cannot let it turn into a nation of workers."

Following the speech, the migrant workers' hotline issued a press release condemning Netanyahu's remarks, calling them "racist and hypocritical."

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