For the freedom to work

Can you imagine yourself in a situation where you are denied the right to seek legal employment?

migrant worker farmer 88 (photo credit: )
migrant worker farmer 88
(photo credit: )
Sunday was the UN's "International Migrant Day" dedicated to raising awareness and protecting the rights of migrants worldwide. In Israel, which has an extraordinary number of migrant residents, and where the rate of migrant workers is on a par with the strongest European economies, this day was celebrated by a single event organized by a small group of NGOs, led by our Hotline for Migrant Workers. As the political system is going through a series of bangs, and social issues become something that politicians suddenly feel an urge to talk about - in place of action - perhaps it's time to rethink the way Israel manages its migrant workers. Migrant workers are summoned legally into Israel at a higher rate than at which they are deported. They are illegally charged up to $10,000 for the privilege of getting work permits, but they are denied the most basic freedom of occupation. The work permit belongs to the employer (or employment agency), and workers cannot change employers without losing their permits. Regardless of whether the workers are paid or not, abused or not, receive legally mandated social benefits or not, migrant workers are not allowed to change employers. De jure, of course, the situation is different. Legally, migrant workers who decide to quit their jobs are supposed to get a temporary tourist visa for a month or two, and use this time to find a new employer with a permit to employ them. Workers employed by an agency may also ask the agent for a new placement. But de facto, the situation is much more complicated. Subject to threats, violence and confinement by employers, burdened by huge debts as a result of paying mediation fees, and exposed to an overzealous deportation police that desperately seeks to meet an impossible deportation quota, migrant workers are rarely able to change employers. If the system worked, NGO Kav LaOved wouldn't have had to spend so many resources on representing workers who are denied the right to change employers. CAN YOU imagine yourself in a situation where you are denied the right to quit your job and seek legal employment? This doesn't make sense, neither in terms of human rights nor in terms of liberal economics. The binding of migrant workers to employers provides employers with the opportunity to abuse and underpay. The result is a segregated labor force: migrant worker sectors, where state policy enables illegal near-slavery conditions (construction, agriculture, care-giving), and other sectors which compete for Israeli workers in a so-called free market reality. Of course, the division is not that clear cut. Employment norms, developed in the context of Palestinian and migrant workers, find their way into sectors which employ Israelis (such as cleaning, banking and security). But this is precisely the danger. From the point of view of the Israeli worker the results of current policy are twofold: exclusion from the "migrant worker sectors," and deterioration of employment norms. From the point of view of national economy the result is a market which loses the benefits that free competition is supposed to yield. HOW CAN the situation be resolved? The Irish model has been exalted as exemplary by both Binyamin Netanyahu and Amir Peretz. Here is the basic principle of the Irish model concerning migrant workers: Once the state acknowledges a need to bring migrant workers into the country, the state must respect their right to equality and to mobility between employers. This means that once a migrant worker is given a work permit: • The work permit belongs to the worker and not to any employer. • The worker is allowed to seek employment as long as his original work permit is valid (the Irish model doesn't even restrict workers to their original work sector). • The state must provide migrant workers with the exact same labor rights as citizen workers. The point here is not only egalitarian idealism or the recognition that a worker is not just a worker but also a living and breathing human being; the point is to provide an equal opportunity for local workers to compete with migrant workers for jobs. A worker with fewer rights and less mobility is more exploitable and more attractive to employers. The result is necessarily unfair competition, which hurts the local worker in terms of job offers and employment norms. According to this logic, the rights of a Chinese worker in Israel should not be tied to his civil rights and potential salary in China. If you really believe that your paupers come first, then the terms of employment of a Chinese worker must be made comparable to the terms of employment of your own citizens. This way locals are given a fair chance, the labor market has access to the workers it needs, and the blossoming industry of trafficking in humans for labor will be significantly curtailed. But this doesn't apply only to migrants. According to Ze'ev Wiener, chairman of an organization which helps the self-employed, a Druse woman sewing worker who makes NIS 2,500 per month doesn't feel that her employer is exploiting her. Yet she deserves better pay. She deserves more not only based on an abstract principle of equality. She deserves more because it is society as a whole which stands to suffer. It stands to suffer segregation, it stands to suffer discrimination based on sex and ethnicity, and it even stands to suffer a breach of modern economics' holy of holies - fair competition. The writer is a board member for worker rights NGO Kav LaOved - Worker's Hotline