The cabinet on Sunday approved a plan to reduce
the number of illegal foreign workers in Israel, which Finance Minister
Yuval Steinitz said would free up 30,000-50,000 jobs for Israelis.
new plan, which was proposed by an interministerial team from the
Finance, Justice and Interior ministries, aims to reduce the number of
illegal workers, mainly by going after their employers. The plan
proposes to toughen enforcement through increased fines, change
taxation policies so that those who employ illegal foreign workers
won't receive tax benefits from their employment, and increase
penalties on employment agencies that charge exorbitant fees from those
who want to work in Israel.
"The plan is meant to address the labor market," said Prime
Minister Binyamin Netanyahu, at a joint press conference with Steinitz
and Justice Minister Yaakov Neeman.
"Our commitment is first and foremost to our own poor," he
said. "We cannot demand and encourage the haredi and Arab populations
to take part in the labor force and at the same time allow the jobs
they are supposed perform to be filled by illegal foreign workers."
Netanyahu said the massive influx of foreign workers
in the last few years carries security concerns, introduced or
aggravated existing problems of drug use and human trafficking and
erodes wages, affecting first and foremost non-skilled and uneducated
"There is another aspect too," said Netanyahu. "The State of
Israel is a Jewish and democratic state. We want to ensure that we will
continue to be a state for Jews, but with full rights to those who are
not Jewish; to enable those citizens to find jobs and earn their wages
linked the new plan to the recent OECD report, which criticized
Israel's employment market, pointing to large income gaps and unequal
access to women, haredim and minorities.
He said the plan would reduce the number of illegal foreign
workers by 30,000-50,000 and that the jobs would go to the
underrepresented sectors. "In this way we will be able to return to
pre-crisis employment figures," he said.
The new plan aims to force agencies that import workers for
jobs in the caretaking sector to pay the workers for a full year's
This is meant to encourage them to keep the workers on longer
and not rush to import a new worker from abroad. To this end, a
database of unemployed caregivers with permits will be established.
Until now, foreign workers who lost their job due to the death
of their employer, or for other reasons, were at risk of losing their
work permit. The employment agencies, which make money by importing new
workers, were not compelled to first seek to place those already here.
The result became termed the "revolving door," as new migrant workers
were given permits while the existing ones lost their status and were
subject to deportation.
The plan also puts limits on the type of work a foreign worker
can do. Every migrant worker who enters Israel will be designated for a
specific sector, which will appear on his or her permit, and will be
forbidden from crossing over to other sectors.
Those who are found not to be working in their designated sector for more than 90 days will be deported.
As of December, there were approximately 255,000 foreign workers here, constituting 10.4% of the labor force.
Approximately 125,000 are illegal workers. Roughly 77,000 legal
foreign workers are employed in such fields as nursing, agriculture,
construction, and the ethnic Asian restaurant industry. In addition,
about 28,000 Palestinian workers enter Israel legally every day.
Shevy Korzen, executive director of the Migrant Workers'
Hotline, an organization that aids foreign workers, said the new plan
has little in the way of real change.
"If it was a real reform we would accept it
wholeheartedly, but when you look at the plan, there is little in it
that is new. It is mostly populist grandstanding mixed with touches of
"This is far from the comprehensive immigration policy that is
needed," said Korzen. "There is no real solution here because it
doesn't deal with the root of the problem. The state proposes to fix
its unemployment problems by tackling foreign workers. It's as if these
people fell on us from the sky and not as a result of the government
itself importing the workers."
Korzen said that every year the government increases the number
of permits for foreign workers and then pushes them into unemployment
and loss of their legal status by not properly regulating the work
"We've seen this happen before. The government comes out with
announcements such as these and follows up on it by deporting several
thousands of illegal workers, but continues to bring new ones in, so
the sum amount doesn't really change," said Korzen.
Korzen also criticized the ministers for using xenophobic language.
"The foreign workers are a convenient scapegoat and easy
targets. In most other countries, you hear things like what the
ministers are saying only on the right-wing fringes of society. Here
the prime minister and the ministers allow themselves to blame the
workers for the results of long-term government policies," she said.
Dr. Roby Nathanson, director-general of the Macro Center for
Political Economics in Tel Aviv, said the new plan was "science
fiction." He said that the idea of removing 30,000 illegal workers and
replacing them with Israeli workers is something the government would
not be able to do.
"Ariel Sharon proposed something similar when he first came
into power. He formed the immigration police, but they only managed to
deport 3,000-4,000 people a year and Israelis never took their place,"
Nathanson said that deporting such a large amount of people
would cost the government a fortune and would probably not result in
new jobs for Israelis.
"Israel, like many other countries, has a foreign workforce of
10 percent and like in other countries, they perform jobs that the
local population aren't interested in doing. I'm talking about the
'three Ds' - jobs that are dirty, difficult or dangerous," said
"I'd suggest that the ministers have a good read
of the OECD report, which makes valuable recommendations regarding
labor market policy, instead of looking to blame the foreigners for our
a related development, the Ministerial Committee on Legislation
approved a bill that would grant permanent status to hitherto temporary
legislation against providing aid to illegal sojourners, a law aimed at
primarily at blocking illegal workers from the West Bank.
The law was originally approved in 1996, but only only on a
provisional basis and has had to be periodically renewed by the
Knesset. It is currently due to expire on March 31.
The bill seeks to increase the punishment for certain aspects of transporting illegal Palestinian workers into Israel.
The cases include making changes in the vehicle to conceal
passengers, transporting at least six passengers into Israel at the
same time, and cases in which a project manager organizes the
The punishment will be up to five years in prison if the
suspect is the manager, or organizer of a network aimed at smuggling
large numbers of illegal aliens into Israel.
Dan Izenberg contributed to this report.