The Histadrut Labor Federation executive has announced it would accept foreign workers into the union. During a meeting earlier this week, the executive decided to change the organization's bylaws to allow migrant workers to join its ranks.
"The Histadrut executive has reached a decision that will drastically change the treatment foreign workers receive in terms of their status and representation in the Histadrut. I see no reason why a foreign worker shouldn't be accepted like any other Israeli worker," said Histadrut chairman Ofer Eini.
By amending the Histadrut constitution, any foreign worker who chooses to join will enjoy full membership rights, including the right to unionize, the right to vote and vie for posts within the organization and any other member benefits.
"After altering the constitution, the Histadrut will act as a professional union to improve the status, working conditions and protection of migrant workers' rights in Israel, based on the principle of equality and justice before the law," read a statement issued by the executive.
The executive also took a firm stance regarding the proposed expulsion of 1,200 children of foreign workers and their families.
"We are only talking about a small number of children who grew up in the country and a solution can surely be found that doesn't include deporting them," said Eini.
Despite the move, the executive stated that it would support the gradual decrease of work permits for foreign workers in an effort to reduce unemployment.
"Work permits should only be issued according to real market needs, after ensuring all opportunities to employ Israeli workers have been exhausted. Any other policy and a lack of enforcement will only compound the problem," said Eini.
With 250,000 legal foreign workers in Israel, the Histadrut stands to generate substantial income through membership dues. Every new member will pay union dues equivalent to 0.9% of their salaries, potentially adding up to millions. The move will also allow the Histadrut to gain grounds in sectors where it has not been represented, like construction and agriculture.
The decision was passed despite the opposition of the Shas faction of the Histadrut, which argued that allowing foreign workers to join the union would encourage them to stay in Israel.
The move will certainly help the workers who, according to employee rights organization Kav La'oved, suffer from regular exploitation and abuse at the hands of their employers. While foreign workers are legally entitled to the same rights as Israeli workers, reports by human rights organizations show that they often work long hours without overtime benefits, are sometimes paid less than minimum wage and work in substandard conditions.
Hannah Zohar, executive director of Kav La'oved, congratulated the Histadrut on its decision, but said that it was long overdue. Zohar said she thinks allowing foreign workers to join the Histadrut will help improve their overall lot.
"Employers were led to believe that no one cares about the migrants and they could do whatever they want to them. If the Histadrut really takes actions, then it might change things," said Zohar.
Zohar expressed skepticism over the motives behind the Histadrut's decision. "The only reason the Histadrut decided to accept membership of foreign workers is because they now have competition from an alternative workers' organization, Koach La'ovdim," said Zohar.
"The Histadrut is used to going over the workers' heads to reach bargains with employers. Now that they have some competition from a democratic and inclusive union, they feel spurred to act."