Foreign workers' Catch 22: Babies here pay highest price

Once here, nearly all employers of foreign workers illegally take away their passports.

foreign workers kids 224 (photo credit: Ariel Jerozolimski)
foreign workers kids 224
(photo credit: Ariel Jerozolimski)
The municipal agency that cares for the children of foreign workers in south Tel Aviv is desperately seeking new funds to expand its programming and to combat the neglect in which some 1,000 infants live each day in Israel's business capital. Mesila, the aid and information center for the foreign workers community of Tel Aviv-Jaffa, works with Israel's perhaps most vulnerable children: the hundreds of infants aged zero to six who are left in barred cribs in dozens of pirate kindergartens for up to 14 hours per day while their illegal immigrant single mothers can go to work. Most of these mothers shouldn't be illegal, but they fell through the cracks of a broken system that does not enforce its own laws adequately. A foreign worker who arrives in Israel with a legal work visa automatically loses that visa if she becomes pregnant, meaning that she can no longer work in the elderly care industry many foreign workers are engaged in and usually then becomes an illegal house cleaner. The problem begins in the worker's home country. By Israeli law, manpower agencies are permitted to charge up to $1,000 in agents' fees from a potential worker, but the agencies find legal loopholes, and can charge $4,000 or more. Once here, nearly all employers of foreign workers illegally take away their passports, which can leave them stranded. Workers also know that Israeli authorities have an unspoken agreement not to deport a worker with infant children living in Israel. This has created an incentive - workers sometimes call it the "baby visa" - to have these children. As single young women in their early twenties from the third world, they may not know enough about contraception to prevent the pregnancies in the first place. The problem is not new or unknown. But the plight of the young children, whose situation is worse than that of their parents, is less well known. The children are kept in incredibly crowded rooms in dilapidated buildings, with peeling paint and exposed drain pipes. The Jerusalem Post visited one kindergarten with exposed electrical wiring and construction materials, and unfenced access to a construction site next door. Mesila knows of around 30 of these pirate kindergartens housing some 1,000 infants; half of them live in unsafe conditions for 12 hours each day. The other half spend the first few hours of the day in formal municipal kindergartens but are sent to the pirate kindergartens when the state ones close after 1 p.m. Many children who should be in public kindergartens can't register for them. While any child older than three can go to public kindergartens, registering the child requires a birth certificate. Many foreign worker women flee the hospital immediately after giving birth, and, with outstanding debts to the hospital, do not receive birth certificates. Mesila helps to renegotiate the debt into cheap long-term payments while receiving from the hospital a compromise "live birth certificate" that does not list the child's name. This document is accepted by many - but not all - public kindergartens. In the pirate kindergartens, the children live in barred cribs, usually without human interaction of any kind. While some kindergartens Mesila has examined feed the children on time and change their diapers, others leave the infants hungry and sitting in their excrement. Some 1,000 children are served by Mesila, in kindergartens ranging in size from 10 to 100 infants. "Even in the best cases, the children are neglected," Mesila director Tamar Shwartz says. "I don't know how these kids aren't injured constantly. They climb stairs without banisters to get to the bathroom. And the caregivers use violence as an educational tool." The agency began in 1999 as an information center for foreign workers and, with the deportations of most of the men and leaders of the community, quickly found itself turning into a welfare service center. Now, after eight years of working with a minuscule budget, the situation is improving. This year, the Industry, Trade and Labor Ministry agreed in principle to take responsibility for supervising the hygiene and safety in the kindergartens, but the bureaucratic process that will send supervisors into the field is still under way. "We've tried to educate the caregivers and bring them supplies," explains Shwartz, "but the change was always tiny, because we can't enforce what we say... We also want to bring in training, since these caregivers don't know what kindergartens should look like. They were never in one. At the end we'll have to close some kindergartens, and this threat will shake them up so that they improve. A lot of times if you don't threaten sanctions, you don't see improvement." While the government's response has been slow in coming, Mesila has been receiving funding from the International Fellowship of Christians and Jews, which has "essentially paid for our entire early childhood division," says Shwartz. The funding comes to hundreds of thousands of shekels, and pays for a social worker who conducts regular visits to the kindergartens, giving the agency some idea of what's happening to the children at any given time and allowing them to intercede in the worst cases of abuse and neglect. These funds also pay for a social worker who identifies and treats children at risk and children with learning disabilities. This worker manages 120 cases, four times as many as an average social worker in Israel, and provides the only help these kids will get, including providing space for some in special schools that treat their disabilities. With all the problems, is Shwartz optimistic this problem can be solved? "This isn't decreed from heaven. It's something we can solve. With immigrant populations, you have to look for changes over a generation. Some of this will demand a cultural change - not to hit children, the need to play with them. I'm sure if they had citizenship and lived with less fear and without the need to hide they'd be more open to cooperating with us." Yet Mesila has made significant inroads on the problem, Shwartz says, specifically in the agency's goal of expanding its educational programming for the caregivers. "We need money for pedagogic guidance. To change someone, you have to show what they'll lose if they continue down the current path, and you have to show them the advantages of the new path." Now that the IFCJ funds have created "the basic oversight mechanism, and someone to work with the kids with disabilities, if I can bring more funds for professionals to run this plan, there is a real chance of turning this situation around."