(photo credit: Ariel Jerozolimski)
The Knesset Committee for Foreign Workers called on the Ministries of Welfare and Social Services; Labor, Trade and Industry; and Pensioners Affairs to pull together to ensure the safety of the 23,000 disabled elderly Israelis who are cared for by both legal and illegal foreign workers.
Committee chairman MK Ran Cohen (Meretz) said that the country had recently seen an alarming increase in the abuse of the elderly and that increased supervision of caretakers and the private companies that employ them, by social workers and government offices, would be one way to prevent this phenomenon.
MK Sarah Marom-Shalev (Gil Pensioners), who this week presented legislation calling on the Ministry of Labor, Trade and Industry to conduct monthly checks of the manpower agencies, opened the proceedings by highlighting the murder last month of 76-year-old Holon resident Shoshana Birenbach at the hands of her Moldavian caregiver.
Currently, the foreign caregiver industry is divided into two distinct elements: nursing agencies contracted by the National Insurance Institute and private manpower companies regulated by the Ministry of Labor, Trade and Industry. While there is no comprehensive legislation governing how the NII should supervise its contractor agencies, specially appointed social workers are meant to check up on caregivers once every two months. However, immense workloads mean that each social worker is responsible for up to 700 cases.
For the private companies operating under the authority of the Ministry of Labor, Trade and Industry, regulation and supervision is even less regimented, with the companies themselves obliged to send social workers only twice and permitted to create their own follow-up assessments. In many cases, the ministry said, social workers falsify their credentials and make up the reports.
"Everyone is dealing with a different aspect of this and there is no cohesiveness," Cohen told the committee. "This is very bad and it is about time we had a comprehensive body for people to turn to if they are victims of abuse and a system of punishment for those who are hurting them."
While the committee proposed calling on Minister of Welfare and Social Services Isaac Herzog to institute firmer disciplinary measures for social workers cheating the system, and putting in a budget request to the Finance Ministry to increase the number social workers dealing with the elderly, Shmuel Armon, representative of Achioz - the National Association of International Manpower Companies in Israel - told The Jerusalem Post that social workers' visits do little to prevent abuse or neglect.
"Most times the [foreign] worker knows to expect the social worker and cleans up the place to hide any signs of mistreatment," he said, adding that perhaps a video camera similar to a nanny cam might be a possible solution.
A spokesman for the Ministry of Welfare and Social Services also responded that a short visit from a social worker was not enough to identify possible cases of abuse, but that rather the family of the elderly patient was responsible for monitoring their relative's welfare.
However, Cohen said that while the families should be aware of what is happening, it is also the responsibility of the government to ensure that abuse does not take place. In some cases, he pointed out, there are elderly people who do not have relatives to look out for them.
Cohen also said that he planned to call on the Ministry of Pensioner's Affairs to provide the public with an address for their questions and complaints.
Sara Silberstein-Hipsch, head of the Public Affairs and Public Rights Department at the Ministry of Pensioners' Affairs, told the Post that plans were already under way in the newly established office to create a national ombudsman to monitor cases of abuse against the elderly.
"We all need to be aware of this phenomenon," she told the committee. "We need to call on the public to be more vigilant and we must utilize the thousands of pensioners who volunteer around the country to go into the homes of the elderly and check up on their welfare."
Tal Dagan, lawyer for the Hotline For Migrant Workers, a non-governmental organization, said that in order to prevent abuse it was also important for social workers to check up on the workers' conditions and their treatment by the families of the elderly person.
According to the committee's study, 33,692 elderly people are eligible for nursing benefits and of that figure, 23,000 use their benefits to employ a foreign worker with funding from the NII.
In a survey carried out last year by Haifa University's Department of Gerontology and School of Social Work, 20 percent of those over the age of 60 claim to have been victims of one type of abuse or another, including physical, sexual, verbal and financial abuse and restriction of freedom. Another study by the university found that in more than a quarter of abuse cases the perpetrator was the person's primary caregiver - either a family member or a non-related carer.
"We are talking about thousands of elderly people who are subjected to abuse and neglect," stated Cohen. "This is a subject that needs to be dealt with as soon as possible."
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