Foreign workers who come forward with information about illegal payments they made to receive work visas will be granted immunity from prosecution and deportation, The Jerusalem Post has learned. This decision, which mostly affects Chinese workers, presents a change from the previous government policy that barely took an interest in the methods Israeli and Chinese middlemen used to bring workers into the country, and instead worked to reduce the numbers of workers by deporting those whose visas were cancelled for whatever reason. Shalom Ben Moshe, director of the department for foreign workers in the Ministry of Trade and Industry told the Post last week that dealing with the middlemen has now become the main priority. The current law allows manpower companies to charge a maximum of NIS 3,050 in return for arranging work visas, but there have been many reports of Chinese workers paying sums of up to $15,000. This is usually paid by illegal loans to which family members are guarantors. Ben Moshe estimates that about 70 percent of those payments go to Israeli manpower companies. "We have made clear that such sums are illegal and if they continue to charge them, it will affect the Israeli government's decision to allow more Chinese workers into the country." Ben Moshe promises that any Chinese worker who comes forward with information will not be prosecuted. Instead, they will receive assistance in finding new employment. The size of the foreign worker community in Israel peaked in 2002 when a quarter of a million workers from around the world were in the country, many of them remaining here illegally. The government, at that time, embarked on a policy of drastically reducing those numbers, mainly by deportation and limiting the number of new visas issued. The new methods succeeded in reducing the number of workers by about 100,000 and according to official figures, there are currently 83,000 foreign workers legally in the country and about 60,000 working illegally. However, the tough methods were scaled back last year due to fierce criticism of the actions of immigration police and various ministries involved and the fact that it would be impossible to replace most of those employed in construction, agriculture and nursing. It is for those same reasons that the government is now focusing on the criminality inherent in the importing of the workers. "The Chinese workers are here because, for a start, they are willing to pay much more than the others," says Haggai Herzl, who runs an aid center in Tel Aviv for foreign workers. "We already have evidence of people paying as much as $15,000 just for the opportunity to get a visa to Israel and work here.Their intention is to work here for five years; in that time they'll make about $60,000. That's a very large sum in the rural areas of China." Herzl, a former advisor to internal security ministers on the subject of foreign workers, is one of a small group of Israelis who is dedicated to helping foreign workers and he often represents those who are appealing their deportation orders. According to Herzl, the Chinese workers are in the worst situation of all the nationalities working in Israel since very few of them speak Hebrew or English, have no community in the country to help them - as most of the other nationalities have - and are totally at the mercy of their employers. If something is wrong with their visa, if they have been brought to do a job that they are untrained for, or if they try to leave an employer who ignores their rights, they are immediately liable to be deported. "When I was in charge of the deportations, Chinese would be begging to stay because they had only been here for a year or so and they hadn't finished paying off the loan they took to come here," says Herzl. "They would say to me that if we sent them back, it would be a death sentence." Herzl adds that in many cases, workers were deported because of the misdeeds of their employer. A State Comptroller's report several years ago highlighted the situation whereby if an employer didn't pay the requisite fees, his workers would be arrested as a sanction. If the employer was caught moving the workers to a different place than specified by their visas, the workers would be arrested and deported. The Chinese government, which has recently begun taking a closer interest in the welfare of its citizens working in Israel, blames the local authorities for being uncooperative and for placing the workers' welfare at a low priority. Dei Min, economic and commercial counselor at the Chinese Embassy in Tel Aviv, visits Chinese workers regularly. "We think that the best thing is to work through the Chinese labor corporations," she says. "They are selected by the government, organize the workers and give them proper training before coming here. The workers that came with the corporations are legal." The promised crackdown on employers comes after media reports over the last few years of widespread corruption in the system. Proceedings in the case of former employment minister Shlomo Benizri are underway. Benizri allegedly received bribes from his friend Moshe Sela in return for arranging hundreds of visas for foreign workers through Sela's manpower company. A spokesman for the Minister of Trade and Industry Eli Yishai said this week that the minister is still formulating his policy on foreign workers but his main objective is "that there should be no foreign workers, save for those working in nursing."