The number of foreign and refugee workers rose 12.5 percent to 225,000 in 2008, nearly half of whom were illegal workers, according to a survey by the Industry, Trade and Labor Ministry. "In 2008, there was a significant increase in the number of non-Israeli workers," Roni Bar-Zuri, a researcher at the ministry's economics and research division, told The Jerusalem Post Sunday. "The increase was mainly led by a rise in the number of refugees and in the number of legal foreign workers in the nursing and care-giver sector." The rise in the number of foreign workers, refugees and Palestinians joining the labor market over the last four years of strong economic growth, until mid-2008, reduced the availability of mainly low-skilled jobs for Israelis, according to the ministry's report. "The rate of unemployment went down during the years of growth. But were it not for the foreign workers joining the labor market, the decline could have been greater," Bar-Zuri said. "The situation deteriorated as a result of a weaker restraint policy on employment licenses, less stringent supervision on employers and a slowdown in the expulsion of illegal workers." At the end of 2008, there were 285,000 non-Israeli workers, including foreign workers, refugees and Palestinians, compared with 245,000 a year earlier, representing an increase of over 16%, the survey said. The number of foreign workers rose to 215,000 at the end of 2008, compared with 200,000 a year earlier, out of which 45%, or 97,000, were illegal. Since 2007, the number of illegal foreign workers has increased by 10%, the survey said. There were 10,000 refugees from African countries, including Sudan, who joined the labor market; 20,000 refugees were brought to the country in 2007 and 2008. Most were employed in agriculture and hotels in Eilat. The survey showed that the number of foreign workers employed in nursing in 2008 rose 19% to 54,500 compared with the previous year. Bar-Zuri said the number of foreign workers employed in the agriculture and construction increased last year despite the government's decision to reduce numbers in these sectors. During the surveyed period, 3,300, or 3.4%, out of 97,000 illegal foreign workers were expelled, compared with 4,000 the previous year. "The data points to a decline in the number of illegal workers who were expelled from Israel since 2005, following peak years in 2003 and 2004, during which 21,000 and 17,000, respectively, were expelled," Bar-Zuri said. Finance Minister Yuval Steinitz announced last month that he intended to work closely with the recently created Immigration Authority to crack down on illegal migrant workers. The survey reported that according to estimates by the Bank of Israel, the number of Palestinian workers employed in Israel rose by 20%, to 60,000, working mainly in construction and car repair garages.