'Foreign workers' plight to worsen with gov't-approved plan'

New scheme seeks to reduce number of illegal foreign workers by toughening fines and removing tax benefits for employers.

migrant workers children 311  (photo credit: Ariel Jerozolimski)
migrant workers children 311
(photo credit: Ariel Jerozolimski)

Workers' rights organizations say a new plan toreduce the number of illegal migrant workers in Israel will not solveIsrael's migrant worker problem, and could make the humanitariansituation faced by such workers worse.

Thenew plan, approved by the cabinet on Sunday, seeks to reduce the numberof illegal foreign workers by toughening fines and removing taxbenefits for those who employ them.

The plan also requires manpower agencies who import workers forthe caretaking industry to pay them for a full year's employment, toencourage them to reassign workers who lose their jobs, rather thanimporting new ones.

Dana Shakked, spokesperson for the Kav La'oved workers'rights organization, said if the government does not find a means offirst capping the number of legal workers brought to Israel, the numberof illegal workers deported will not make a difference, citing the over120,000 permits for foreign workers approved by the Netanyahugovernment in 2009.

Under the new plan, every migrant worker will beapproved only for a specific sector and will not be able to work inother fields. Those who are not employed in their approved sector after90 days will face deportation.

Shakked said she expects the new provision to lead to a farhigher number of people coming to her organization complaining ofabuse, because they will be bound to a specific form of employmentwhich could potentially deter them from leaving an abusive employer.

"We will see more terrified people trapped with nowhere to go," Shakked said.

Shakked said the main downside of the proposal is that itdoesn't properly address the problem of the "revolving door" system, inwhich legal foreign workers who have lost their jobs following thedeath of an employer or other reasons, lose their legal status and aredeported, while new foreign workers brought in to replace them.

Shakked also took issue with the brokerage feesdemanded from migrant workers by manpower agencies, which can reachinto the tens of thousands of dollars.

Shakked said Kav La'oved "feels the government has slapped usin the face." She rejected Prime Minister Binyamin Netanyahu'scontention Sunday that the new program would free up jobs forunemployed Israelis, with Finance Minister Yuval Steinitz putting thenumber at 30,000 to 50,000 jobs.

"If this was the case, then why would the government invitethese workers? Why would they approve their permits?" Shakked said,adding that the difficulty in getting Israelis to work in agriculture,caretaking, and construction is the reason the government invitedmigrant workers to Israel in the first place.

The Hotline for Migrant Workers' Tel Aviv headquarters appearedrather sedate on Monday afternoon, with two volunteers assistingAfrican migrant workers at desks in the main office.

Shevy Korzen, executive director of the organization, said thatmost of the people the organization assists are in detentionfacilities, and the office is rarely crowded with clients.

Korzen said that limiting migrant workers to a specific fieldof employment could lead to an influx of formerly legal foreign workerscoming to her office for help after finding themselves illegal andfacing deportation because they are unable to find work before their90-day grace period is up.

Korzen said that if the government was serious about reducingthe number of foreign workers in Israel they would work to end therevolving door by capping the number of foreign workers allowed toenter Israel and the fees charged by manpower agencies.

Korzen described an "absurd" reality in which human rightsorganizations want the government to close the door to migrant workers,and the government seeks to keep it open.

Both Shakked and Korzen slammed Netanyahu's statement that theinflux of foreign workers has brought security concerns and worsenedsocial problems such as drug use and crime, calling it "racist" and aform of fear-mongering intended to scapegoat the foreign workers,instead of the government that invited them in the first place.

At a conference held by the Israel Manufacturers Association inTel Aviv last Thursday, Netanyahu threatened that "the rise in theinfiltration of illegal foreign workers could turn into a flood" adding"we have created a Jewish and democratic nation and we cannot let itturn into a nation of workers."

Following the speech, the migrant workers' hotline issued apress release condemning Netanyahu's remarks, calling them "racist andhypocritical."