Deconstructing Israeli bureaucracy

A year gone by and migrant construction workers still await their severance pay.

By ORLEA AICHEL
January 1, 2008 21:21
bummed out

chinese worker 224.88. (photo credit: Ariel Jerozolimski [file])

 
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At the end of 2006 and during the first few months of 2007 the Ministry of Industry, Trade and Labor implemented procedural changes that resulted in the non-payment of severance pay to over 1,100 migrant workers in the construction sector (most of whom are Chinese). This is estimated to amount to approximately NIS 13 million. Under Israeli law, migrant workers in the construction sector are entitled to receive severance pay and other payments upon termination of their employment. This payment is made only after the workers' departure from Israel, and derives from the money (NIS 700 ) "deposited" monthly for that purpose by employers. The rationale behind this procedure is to encourage migrant workers to leave Israel upon expiration of their work permits, rather than have them remaining in Israel without permits. The Ministry of Industry, Trade and Labor is responsible for ensuring that the severance pay is distributed to the migrant workers upon their departure from Israel. UNDER THE original arrangement, the workers were given the choice of receiving the severance pay directly to their bank accounts abroad or collecting it in cash at the Ben-Gurion Airport after going through border control. The overwhelming majority chose to receive the money at the airport - almost 100% of the workers, as reported to Kav LaOved by the Ministry of Industry, Trade and Labor. On December 10, 2006, a change in procedure was announced by the Ministry of Industry, Trade and Labor, which comprehensively denied the workers the possibility of receiving the severance pay at the airport. Instead their only option was to have the money transferred to their bank accounts abroad. Kav LaOved's objection to this change in procedure was reiterated to the Ministry of Industry, Trade and Labor and the Finance Ministry on various occasions. We expressed our concern that workers will ultimately not receive the money entitled to them at all, either because they do not possess a bank account in their country of origin, or due to other bureaucratic complications. We received an explanation from the Finance Ministry for the cancellation of the procedure of payment of severance pay to the workers at the airport. Over two years ago, the Accountant General issued a tender in which a bank was awarded the task of transferring the severance pay and other payments to migrant workers. The terms of the tender (which were drafted together with a representative of the Ministry of Industry), stated that the money could only be transferred to the workers' bank account abroad, thereby ending the practice of receiving the money at the airport. However, the Ministry of Industry continued to allow the practice of payments at the airport, until this contravention of the terms of the tender was discovered by the Accountant General. This explanation goes some way to clearing up the confusion. However, it does not explain why, if the Ministry of Industry was aware that under the current procedure bank transfers are the only permitted means of transferring the payments to the workers, it did not ensure that migrant workers provide their bank account details before they leave Israel, and why it did not make clear to them that failure to do so would result in failure to receive their severance pay. IN ACTUAL fact, the forms that the workers were instructed to complete were not comprehensively checked by officials to ensure that they had been completed properly, thereby leading to a situation where many forms lacked details which later turned out to be vital for the money transfers. Furthermore, neither the workers nor Kav LaOved were informed of the change in procedures of receiving the severance pay, and indeed, we only discovered by chance about the changed procedure while reading the Web site of the Ministry of Industry, Trade and Labour, where a notice had been posted in Hebrew (needless to say, not a language that the vast majority of migrant workers can read). We continued to receive telephone calls from distressed construction workers who returned home and had not received the money into their bank accounts. Following up on this information, Kav LaOved turned to the Ministry, and received contradictory replies regarding the reason for this omission from various bodies in the Ministry, including the difficulty in locating the bank account number abroad due to missing details, or having forms filled in Chinese Mandarin characters rather than Latin characters (this particular excuse goes no way toward explaining why Romanian, Moldavan and Turkish workers - who account for about 30% of the total number of workers leaving Israel during the relevant period - have also not received their money). DUE TO the continued pressure of Kav LaOved, the procedure was eventually reversed on July 1, 2007, so that the workers are once again permitted to receive their severance pay in cash at the airport prior to their departure from Israel. However, the situation with the severance pay of migrant workers who had left Israel before July 1 continues to be problematic. We raised the issue with the authorities in numerous correspondence and telephone conversations. Kav LaOved was eventually informed that Bank Hapoalim had been authorized to distribute the severance pay to the workers who leave Israel, but that there were delays due to the fact that the bank proved unable to actually transfer the money abroad. In October 2007 Bank Hapoalim eventually conducted a very limited pilot project to establish whether it was possible to transfer the money using the forms that the workers had filled in. The intention was that after the pilot the payments would be transferred to the remaining workers. However, months after the pilot, it is still not clear how many workers had their payments transferred, how many transfer attempts have failed, and how the remaining workers will be located. According to information we received from the Ministry of Industry, Trade and Labour in October, around 700 workers filled in forms on leaving the country, but due to varying levels of incomplete information their money has yet to be transferred. Around 400 workers left the country without filling in forms at all. Obviously, in addition to obtaining the required details from those workers who did fill out forms, those workers who did not complete any forms will have to be located - it can only be expected that the authorities will have extreme difficulties in both instances, considering the fact that, for example, there are some forms that do not even contain the telephone numbers of the workers. UNTIL NOW, as far as Kav LaOved is aware, the Ministry had not initiated any kind of promotion or advertisement of this issue abroad and this is despite assurances that we received from the Ministry that it would do so. Information has only been released in China, and even that was not initiated by the Israeli authorities. In mid December, the Payment Department at the Ministry reported that Bank Hapoalim undertook that by the end of December it would transfer payments to all the 700 workers for whom it has forms. Let us not forget that this is over a year after the procedure was initially changed. Only time will tell how many of the 700 transfers are actually successful, how long it will take to locate the remaining workers who left the country without filling in forms and, indeed, to what lengths the authorities will go in order to locate these workers. The writer is a staff member at Kav LaOved, Worker's Hotline.

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