We've all enjoyed fast food produced by Asians at malls and restaurants. Some of these cooks stir-fry local variations of popular East Asian dishes, while many prepare chicken schnitzels and other Israeli favorites. Still others simply work the cash registers or clean up. These Asian employees are as commonplace as they were once rare. Their omnipresence was recently decreed "undesirable and unwarranted" by the Industry, Trade and Labor Ministry, which resolved to limit work permits for foreign kitchen staff during the current year and issue none for 2009. Exceptions will be made for those establishments that employ gourmet Asian chefs, at the going rate for these professionals - a good way to make sure that Asian workers are not simply brought over to provide cheap labor. The last thing we want are migrant laborers whose only qualification for working in a restaurant is a readiness to put in exceptionally long hours at exceptionally low pay. The ministry's move has outraged members of a group called the Roof Organization of Ethnic Restaurants in Israel, representing Chinese, Thai, Indian and Japanese eateries. They assert that without foreign help, many restaurants will close down. And to underscore the owners' demand for permission to keep on importing labor, they warn they will otherwise have to fire 6,500 of their Israeli employees. To preempt what they describe as "a looming disaster" to all ethnic eateries, they have begun distributing leaflets to their clientele, asking manipulatively: "Remember the first time you tasted patai?... This may be the end of the noodle, sushi and curry era." Such attempts to mobilize public opinion against the ministry's decision are demagogic, just as the threats to sack Israelis are extortionist. The restaurateurs are only looking after their own interests, and disingenuously at that. The Israelis they employ are mostly underpaid waiters expected to subsist on tips. And what holds true for the Israelis is all the more true for the foreigners. The fact that the door has been left open for upmarket restaurants willing to pay decent wages for real skills shows that the fuss being made is only about cheap labor. Too many restaurants and fast-food chains thrive on paying ludicrous wages to overworked Asians, who spend all their daylight hours on the job and whose passports are sometimes held hostage by their employers. These workers are plainly exploitable, and that is their crowning qualification. Some of these laborers had no previous kitchen experience, and the fact that they hail from a certain country doesn't render them experts at preparing their native cuisine. Others can be found preparing foods not even from their homelands. Sushi rolled by Filipinos is no more authentic than sushi rolled by Israelis. And if so, there's no plausible reason why Israeli cooks couldn't, for a fair wage, master Asian "ethnic" cuisine just as they have mastered that of the Italians and the French. ETHNIC FOOD needn't be cooked only by members of that specific ethnicity. It's telling that the claim about native know-how being essential is made only when it comes to workers from developing countries. No one, for example, is suggesting that this country lacks low-paid French or Italian cooks. One suspects that the reason for the current lobbying by the Roof Organization of Ethnic Restaurants in Israel has little to do with gastronomic concerns. Were the low-earning foreigners replaced by Israelis, restaurateurs would be forced to pay fair wages, along with attendant social benefits. As it is, the taxpayers must foot additional unemployment and welfare bills. Foreigners engaged in seasonal agricultural chores and caregivers to the infirm may be indispensable, but restaurateurs benefiting from unskilled cheap labor are the last pressure group to which the government should cave in. Overall, cheap labor - not just in restaurants but in a broad array of enterprises - ends up being exceedingly expensive for Israeli society. When foreign workers fill a special niche, they can aid our economy while helping themselves. But importing restaurant workers to labor for exploitative wages simply leaves a bad taste in our mouths.