Why is Israel expelling migrant workers?

For workers to live in quasi-slave like conditions seems highly inappropriate to the spirit of social justice in Israel.

May 31, 2012 22:24
4 minute read.
Migrants at Tel Aviv’s Levinsky Park

Migrants at Tel Aviv’s Levinsky Park 390. (photo credit: Tamir Kalifa)

From my perspective as a social worker and as a journalist, it is important to set the record straight as to why Israel is about to deport thousands of migrant workers who have flooded the Jewish state of late.

Israel’s Jewish and Arab workers now compete with a migrant worker population from African countries who are enticed by contractors to work in quasi-slave-like conditions, below minimum wage, with no social or medical benefits, Migrant workers are easy prey for easy profits.

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And as of Independence Day, the migrant worker population reached 163,615 people, a figure which includes the children of the migrant workers.

Across the globe, civil liberties organizations and their allies in the media fight to put an end to the phenomenon of the exploitation of migrant workers who are paid dirt wages with no benefits.

Indeed, a CBS documentary that aired when I was a boy, 50 years ago, Harvest of Shame, did wonders to shake the conscience of people throughout the United States to the horrific working conditions for migrant workers in American agriculture.

Yet in Israel today, civil liberties organizations and their allies in the media fight for migrant workers to remain in horrific conditions in Israel. The only worry of Israel’s civil liberties organizations is that the migrant workers should not be deported back to their home countries.

For workers to live in quasi-slave like conditions seems highly inappropriate to the spirit of social justice in Israel.

What Israel’s civil liberties organizations and their allies in the media have also overlooked is that the contractors who exploit the migrants have also hurt working people in Israel who would like to make an honest living. When my younger son finished his army service three years ago, he was ready to take any job, so long as he would earn something, before he decided where he would go for advanced studies.

He went from workplace to workplace, shocked that the wages offered were below the minimum wage, with no social or medical benefits.

What he heard from contractor after contractor was that they have “adjusted” their pay scale to “accommodate” cheap migrant workers, who can live below the minimum wage, with no social or medical benefits.

One contractor offered my son NIS 17 an hour, 10 hours a day, 25 percent below minimum wage, with no social or medical benefits as required by law.

A migrant took the job instead.

When our family vacationed for a few days in Eilat, we were surprised to hear that more than 8,000 migrant workers now dominate the city’s hotels, throwing Israeli Jews and Arabs out of work.

On one evening, a taxi driver took us to see a makeshift village for the migrant workers that was acquired by the their contractors, where hundreds of migrant workers and their families lived in crowded conditions.

While we were there, we witnessed migrant workers listening to a course on Israeli civics.

An American Jewish group had hired social workers to teach the migrants how to become Israeli citizens.

And if the migrant population continues to expand – and there is every reason that we can expect that it will grow – the workers might form a political party which will eventually assume ascendancy in Eilat, whose total population is only 49,000.

This has geopolitical implications, since the Egyptian parliament, five years ago, declared that Eilat is an Egyptian city which must be returned to Egypt. A Sudanese mayor may be amenable to such a proposal.

What about law enforcement in the city? Why does the Israeli government not simply dispatch ship to its southern port city and transport the migrants back to their nations of origin? Workers in the mayor’s office said that the Justice Ministry had decided not to enforce the law in Eilat, and that they were “keeping hands off” the situation of the migrant workers in the city.

Our news agency dispatched a letter to the minister of justice asking why.

The office of the minister responded that he received the letter, with no response to the question about the lack of law enforcement over migrant workers in Eilat.

There you have it.

The government has simply ignored its own laws and allowed thousands of illegal migrant workers to establish a foothold in Israel.

Contractors using the migrant workers played it smart, hiring PR firms to issue daily releases to the media which charge that if the government would enforce the law, this would constitute an act of racism and discrimination.

These contractors also donated to the civil liberties groups that have been advocating for the cheap migrant workers to remain in Israel, allowing migrant with no legal status in Israel to unfairly compete with Jewish and Arab Israelis in the labor market, Well-connected Israeli contractors wielded tremendous influence on the government to not enforce the law – until now...

And when the law is not being enforced, people take the law into their own hands. Hence, the violence of late against the migrant workers.

The writer is director of the Israel Resource News Agency.

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