Gov't looks to cut back on foreign workers to help unemployment

Finance Ministry, BoI sources say number of foreigners arriving here to work could be significantly reduced.

foreign worker 248.88 (photo credit: Ariel Jerozolimski )
foreign worker 248.88
(photo credit: Ariel Jerozolimski )
Plans to cut back on the number of foreign workers in Israel and encourage Israelis to work in their place have been set in motion as a response to the country's rising unemployment and growing economic recession, representatives of the government indicated Thursday. According to sources in the Finance Ministry and the Bank of Israel, the number of foreigners arriving here to work in construction or agriculture could be significantly reduced in the near future, with concrete programs already under way to retrain unemployed Israelis in these fields. "We are already making a concerted effort to reduce the number of foreign workers," Meir Shpigler, director of the Foreign Workers Department at the Immigration Authority, told The Jerusalem Post Thursday. He said that the newly formed government authority had started to initiate several deterrents in an attempt to reduce the influx of foreign workers, including increasing the costs for them to come here, and taking out newspaper ads to warn them of the risks. Already the construction industry has received 12,000 fewer workers than it did in the same period last year, and agriculture workers have been cut back by 17,000, said Shpigler. He added that it was unlikely that the number of those working in caregiving would change, because the need in Israel was too great. Currently, there are close to 100,000 legal migrant workers in Israel and up to 150,000 here illegally. Most are employed in construction, agriculture and caregiving. In January, Bank of Israel Deputy Governor Zvi Eckstein announced recommendations to drastically reduce the number of foreign workers in the country. He told the Post Thursday that the first stage in this process was to remove the illegal workers by 2010, a step that would open up the various industries to local employees. "This is not something new. It has been discussed for many years," said Eckstein, who is also an economics professor at Tel Aviv University. "There is already a concerted effort by the Interior Ministry to fight this phenomenon, with additional legislation expected to follow soon in the Knesset." He added that "this is even more important now, given the economic situation." However, Shevy Korzen, executive director of the nonprofit Hotline for Migrant Workers, commented that "whenever there is an economic recession or crisis, there is always talk about cutting the number of foreign workers, but in our experience this is just rhetoric. She explained that "they always like to use the foreign workers as scapegoats, but political interests keep the flow of foreign workers coming in, and the manpower agencies make a lot of money from it." According to Korzen, whose NGO lobbies for the rights of foreign workers in Israel, curbing their entrance into the country is actually a positive step, and the organization plans to push the new government to streamline the system to ensure greater checks and balances. She said her group had already seen a sharp increase in the number of migrant workers made redundant by the economic crisis. Unfortunately, she pointed out, most prefer to stay in the country and try to find work until their visas expire. They are not entitled to any type of state unemployment benefits. "It is very lucrative for the manpower agencies to bring in foreign workers. Unfortunately there are at least 10,000 who are unemployed," said Korzen, adding that the Hotline, along with partner NGO Kav L'oved, (the Worker's Help Line), has been pressuring the government to create bilateral agreements with a few key countries and monitor the number of migrants who enter. "With the economic recession, we only expect the situation to get worse," she said. Shmuel Armon, a representative of Achioz - the National Association of International Manpower Companies in Israel, said that the manpower agencies, which are responsible for bringing the bulk of legal foreign workers into Israel, were not yet feeling the crunch of government cutback plans. "At this stage, it's more a case of them increasing the supervision of the process but not yet cutting back," he said, adding that most of the private companies were supportive of government efforts to improve Israel's unemployment situation. "It's a legitimate response," added Armon. "However, I'm sure there are not many Israelis who would be willing to work as a caregiver for 24 hours a day. Most [Israeli] workers are only willing to work for eight hours, and they would never want to live away from their families."