Interior Minister Eli Yishai responded harshly Monday to a Migrant Workers Hotline report that claimed Shas cabinet ministers were responsible for increases in the import of foreign workers, calling the organization's activists "anti-Jewish Trojan horses."
The report, which was released at a press conference marking a decade of activity in the field of human rights, showed the number of work permits issued every year over the past decade and noted that the ministers in charge of issuing the permits when the numbers were highest were from Shas.
"Those who complain the most about the foreign workers and who push hardest for deportations are the same people who brought them in to begin with," the Hotline's executive director Shevy Korzen said.
According to the Hotline, between 1999 and 2002, the number of foreign workers legally allowed into the country grew from 85,000 to 102,000.
During this time, the minister in charge of issuing permits was Shas MK Shlomo Benizri. Between 2003 and 2004, when Ehud Olmert took over, the numbers dropped back down and fluctuated between 85,000 and 92,000. When Yishai took over in the latter part of 2005, the numbers began rising again - from 98,000 in 2005 to 118,000 in 2008.
According to the Hotline, 2009 is set to be a record year, with 120,000 work permits now in circulation.
Korzen added that contrary to government claims that there had been an increase of illegal foreign workers in recent years with the number constantly rising, their data showed a decrease in illegal workers from 120,000 in 2000 down to 90,000 in 2005, with the figures remaining almost level since.
Yishai lashed out at Hotline's findings, saying the group was out to "sabotage the Zionist enterprise."
"The decisions regarding the issuing of permits to foreign workers are government decisions that I have opposed all along, and not decisions of a single ministry. Any attempts to mislead the public and say that Shas is responsible for increasing the numbers of foreign workers are lies," said Yishai. "The current government will enforce the policies aimed at reducing the numbers of illegal workers in Israel and stand firm against anti-Jewish Trojan horses."
The press conference, which was also attended by diplomats, representatives of other human rights organizations, foreign workers and refugees, presented Hotline activities over the last decade on several fronts.
In the organization's 10 years of operation, the NGO's volunteers have assisted 50,000 people, from 125 countries. The Migrant Workers Hotline started as a service for foreign workers who needed assistance in learning their rights as employees and asking for advice on problems they encountered during their lives in Israel. As the volunteers became more involved and proactive, they began dealing with a variety of other populations, and what was once a hotline grew to become a major aid provider, lobbyist and advocate for human rights.
The report showed that aside from the threat of deportation, the legal workers were more subject to exploitation than the illegal workers.
Korzen explained that those who wanted to enter Israel with a valid work permit were forced to pay high commissions to the employment agencies that brought them. These fees ranged from $3,000 to $30,000, depending on the country of origin and sector of employment. The debts made the foreign workers vulnerable to exploitation, and they were often paid meager salaries for long hours of work.
Korzen said the group's main challenge and goal was to stop the "revolving door" of foreign workers. Between 1998 and 2008, 71,000 people had been deported, but the numbers hadn't dropped because Israel kept bringing more people in, she said.
"People often say that the reason we need foreign workers is because
Israelis simply don't want the jobs, but greed is also a large factor," said Korzen. "The bribes Shlomo Benizri was given to release inside information on permit quotas were paid using the same money that migrants used to pay for the commission fees to the employment agencies that brought them here."
Benizri entered prison in September, having been convicted of accepting bribes. He is serving a four-year sentence.
Aside from migrant workers, whom the Hotline helped by providing legal and consultation services, the group now helps asylum-seekers, victims of human trafficking and the sex trade, the families and children of migrant workers, unaccompanied minors and refugees, among others. The organization is active in fields ranging from humanitarian assistance and individual representation through legal and public activities, to media work, research and education.
One of the speakers at the event was Jorge Ivan, an 18-year-old Colombian who moved to Israel with his parents 11 years ago. Ivan thanked the Hotline on behalf of all the migrant workers.
"You are the best friends any migrant worker in Israel could have," he said. "You, who choose us simply because that is the humane thing to do, and also because you know that in the meantime, there are few in this country who are wiling to do what you do for us. Thank you. And because you can keep asking your friends for more, I'd like to request that you never abandon us. Without you, we'd go back to being unprotected, We'd go back to being nothing."