Working as a caregiver in Ofakim near Gaza, Amihan became accustomed to the frequent rocket fire that threatened the area. But for her patients, an elderly couple both suffering from severe dementia, each new warning siren triggered the same paralyzing degree of distress and confusion.
“Often they wouldn’t move into the safe area. I refused to leave them alone,” she said.
For 10 years and five months, Amihan, originally from the Philippines, remained devoted to her patients, who are also Holocaust survivors. Her services included round-the-clock personal care, seven days a week, for a minimal monthly salary with no overtime pay. Once a month, she was allowed a 24-hour rest period.
“While caring for two disabled people, I can’t bathe or eat regularly,” she said. “If I tried to rest, other family members would ask, ‘aren’t you supposed to be working? What do we pay you for?’” Despite frequent requests for adequate rest time, both Amihan’s manpower agency and her employers refused to permit more. She also faced difficulties regarding fair compensation.
“My work visa states the name of the older woman as my sole employer. By law, I’m only allowed to care for her. Yet I also take care of her husband, whom I am not compensated for. Neither my agency nor my employer have agreed to increase my salary,” she said.
Eventually, Amihan sought legal assistance through Kav LaOved – Worker’s Hotline, a non-profit dedicated to protecting the labor rights of all workers in Israel.
With more than 60,000 legal migrant workers employed in the caregiving sector in Israel, Amihan’s story is far from unique. Most caregivers are women, and are largely unaware of their full labor rights. According to a recent survey done by Kav LaOved, 26 percent of migrant caregivers stated that they never get a day off, while 31% stated that they take a weekly day off irregularly. Such statistics reflect some of the harsh conditions that caregivers face once employed.
Migrant workers in Israel originate mostly from the Philippines, India, Sri-Lanka, Nepal and Eastern Europe. They are recruited by Israeli manpower agencies, who typically charge them exorbitant brokerage fees in exchange for a work visa.
This practice is illegal, according to the Israeli Employment Service Law of 1959.
Kav LaOved reports that caregivers pay an average of $8,500 in fees, and are often forced to borrow money from a bank or a private lender. Burdened with heavy debt and with families to support back home, most migrant workers will do anything to stay employed, regardless of whether or not their employer mistreats them. Some will even endure further exploitation, such as physical and sexual abuse.
Perla, also from the Philippines, spent over five years working as a caregiver for an employer who refused to give her copies of her pay stubs. Over time, her employer became abusive, calling her garbage and forbidding her to take any breaks.
“When my mother died in Manila, I wasn’t allowed to take time off to attend her funeral. I have no vacation time, no days off. I’m forced to buy my own food, even though they are supposed to provide it. I never complained. I couldn’t afford to lose my job,” she said.
Israel has yet to ratify Convention 189, a treaty enacted by the International Labour Organization (ILO) in 2011, which protects the basic legal rights of domestic workers. Under C189, all domestic workers are entitled to fair labor practices, from negotiations with employers, to proper rest time and holidays. As of June 2015, 21 countries across Europe, Asia and South America have ratified C189.
This past June, Kuwait adopted a new law that would grant domestic workers an established minimum wage, offer at least 12 hours of paid overtime and allow various social benefits. Other Gulf States are expected to follow Kuwait’s lead. With the rest of the world already making progress on this issue, Israel cannot afford to fall behind. The Israeli government should also ratify C189 and defend the labor rights of this vulnerable population.
Kav LaOved, along with NGOs from dozens of different countries, is currently participating in the #OurHands campaign, which aims to educate migrant caregivers and other domestic workers about their rights, as stated under C189. This campaign also works to mobilize wider solidarity and global awareness through bringing together various advocacy groups and international supporters. Although Israel is far from the worst when it comes to enforcing fair labor laws, there is still progress to be made, especially when compared to less socially liberal countries that have already ratified this convention.
Like Amihan, many caregivers live and work in remote parts of Israel, making it difficult for some to access supportive resources. In addition to the #Our- Hands campaign, Kav LaOved has also launched a campaign to raise funds for a new program focused on reaching out to all caregivers, regardless of their physical location. Ratifying C189 will help Israel enact a more rigorous enforcement of the labor laws already in place. Further criminal investigations of Israeli manpower agencies will also crack down on the illegal practice of brokerage fees. Migrant caregivers remain an integral part of the Israeli labor force, providing essential care to those often in desperate need. They deserve to be treated with dignity and respect, in adhering to internationally recognized labor standards.The writer recently won the 2016 Jack Dyer literary award and is currently volunteering for Kav LaOved – Worker’s Hotline.