NGOs: Gov’t blind to violations of Turkish construction workers’ rights

The new complaints and testimonies joined dozens of other complaints collected by HRM and Kav LaOved since 1999

Construction in Israel. (photo credit: MARC ISRAEL SELLEM)
Construction in Israel.
(photo credit: MARC ISRAEL SELLEM)
The government and the police are allegedly turning a blind eye to violations of the rights of around 1,200 “imported” Turkish constructions workers, says a report provided to The Jerusalem Post.
Published by the Hotline for Refugees and Migrants (HRM) and Kav LaOved, the report comes after the groups were notified earlier in February that the Central District Attorney’s Office had closed a criminal probe into the alleged abuse of some workers’ rights.
The notice was given by the Population, Immigration and Borders Authority as well as the Authority for Foreign Workers. PIBA and the Central District Attorney’s Office failed to explain their decision.
According to the NGO’s report, 1,200 Turkish construction workers are currently employed in Israel by the Turkish construction company Yilmazlar, which employs workers in projects it oversees and also serves as a labor contracting company.
According to the report, their employment is governed by “a restrictive arrangement that has been repeatedly approved by the Israeli government for over a decade.”
The new complaints and testimonies joined dozens of other complaints collected by HRM and Kav LaOved since 1999. In 2006, the High Court of Justice struck down an arrangement under which migrant workers were bound to their employers and unable to change their working conditions.
The NGOs won a rare victory in June 2019 when the Special Appeals Court for migrant issues granted four Turkish workers the right to move to regular Israeli companies. The state appealed the decision and the proceedings are ongoing.
The NGOs said that an increasing number of Turkish workers started to approach them in 2018, when the government allowed six additional construction companies, all from China, to import an additional 12,000 construction workers to lower costs and speed up the pace of construction projects.
“During that same year only, 13 Turkish construction workers approached HRM and Kav LaOved. The workers reported that they had fled their jobs after being employed in harsh and abusive conditions, had not received their full wages or had sustained work injuries and the company refused to continue employing them,” the report said.
A spokesman for Yilmazlar rejected the accusations.
“These are groundless claims for which there is not even a piece of evidence, and they have been presented over and over again by Kav LaOved to every possible authority, along with the media, and in a problematic manner,” the company said.
Yilmazlar added that the police, PIBA and the courts had all found the claims “groundless” and closed the file.
The company also accused those who have filed lawsuits of attempts to extort the company in order to facilitate the plaintiffs to remain in Israel and not to have to return to Turkey as they are obligated to do when their visa expires.
Without an extension, work visas for Turkish workers to remain in Israel tend to run for a maximum of five years. While Yilmazlar’s position is that the Turkish workers are suing in court to try to get their visas extended pending their court cases, the NGOs said that in some instances, workers are deported for filing complaints or legal proceedings. An October 2015 report by HRM cited a case of a Turkish worker who alleged he was beaten by PIBA and then deported in April 2015 before the police could probe his allegations.
Over the years, HRM and Kav LaOved said they have “turned to state authorities through multiple channels with the aim of protecting the rights of the company’s workers, but without success. Workers who wish to leave the company due to abusive employment conditions are deported from Israel before they are able to receive redress.”
The report said that it “seeks to document the failure of Israeli authorities to protect these workers for the past two decades and offer solutions that would put a stop to this ongoing injustice.”
Testimony from one worker in the report said, “I witnessed several work accidents during my time at Yilmazlar.... They don’t call an ambulance. They take the worker in a car to a particular doctor in Kafr Kassem. They... prefer not to send [the worker] to the hospital, because the company thinks the police will come asking questions.”
Another worker was quoted in the report saying, “A friend who works with me fell from a tall building and was killed. As far as I know, his family paid to return the body to Turkey. The company did not cover the costs.... I asked the work manager not to place me on sites with tall buildings. The manager screamed at me: ‘Why did you come here, if you don’t want to work?’... I was forced to work on skyscrapers, too, despite my fear.”
Another worker quoted in the report recalled: “At the airport in Istanbul... they ordered us, a group of about 100 workers flying together, to sign a slew of documents.... I don’t know which documents I signed... because they rushed us to sign quickly without reading them. So we signed.
“I know I signed a promissory note in the sum of 90,000 Turkish lira [about $23,600] to the benefit of Yilmazlar. This promissory note allowed Yilmazlar to receive the money in court ex parte for any ‘damage’ it claimed I have caused it,” continued the worker in the report.
Regarding work hours, a worker in the report said, “The workday lasted at least 11 hours and at times even 24 hours straight, six days per week. Shifts... at times were extended without warning.”
The report noted that Israeli law restricts construction shifts to eight work hours.
The report recommended that the state “abide by the governmental decision to recruit migrant workers only through bilateral agreements that ensure proper oversight of the employees’ working conditions and ban employment through foreign contracting companies.”
Moreover, the report said, “Authorities should allocate specific budgets for enforcement of labor laws, administrative and criminal enforcement and training of inspectors.”