Gov't to target hiring of illegal foreign workers

Steinitz says moves will create up to 50,000 jobs • Expert calls plan "science fiction," insisting foreigners do jobs that Israelis won't.

The cabinet on Sunday approved a plan to reducethe number of illegal foreign workers in Israel, which Finance MinisterYuval Steinitz said would free up 30,000-50,000 jobs for Israelis.

Thenew plan, which was proposed by an interministerial team from theFinance, Justice and Interior ministries, aims to reduce the number ofillegal workers, mainly by going after their employers. The planproposes to toughen enforcement through increased fines, changetaxation policies so that those who employ illegal foreign workerswon't receive tax benefits from their employment, and increasepenalties on employment agencies that charge exorbitant fees from thosewho want to work in Israel.

"The plan is meant to address the labor market," said PrimeMinister Binyamin Netanyahu, at a joint press conference with Steinitzand Justice Minister Yaakov Neeman.

"Our commitment is first and foremost to our own poor," hesaid. "We cannot demand and encourage the haredi and Arab populationsto take part in the labor force and at the same time allow the jobsthey are supposed perform to be filled by illegal foreign workers."

Netanyahu said the massive influx of foreign workersin the last few years carries security concerns, introduced oraggravated existing problems of drug use and human trafficking anderodes wages, affecting first and foremost non-skilled and uneducatedpopulations.

"There is another aspect too," said Netanyahu. "The State ofIsrael is a Jewish and democratic state. We want to ensure that we willcontinue to be a state for Jews, but with full rights to those who arenot Jewish; to enable those citizens to find jobs and earn their wageswith dignity."

Steinitzlinked the new plan to the recent OECD report, which criticizedIsrael's employment market, pointing to large income gaps and unequalaccess to women, haredim and minorities.

He said the plan would reduce the number of illegal foreignworkers by 30,000-50,000 and that the jobs would go to theunderrepresented sectors. "In this way we will be able to return topre-crisis employment figures," he said.

The new plan aims to force agencies that import workers forjobs in the caretaking sector to pay the workers for a full year'semployment.

This is meant to encourage them to keep the workers on longerand not rush to import a new worker from abroad. To this end, adatabase of unemployed caregivers with permits will be established.

Until now, foreign workers who lost their job due to the deathof their employer, or for other reasons, were at risk of losing theirwork permit. The employment agencies, which make money by importing newworkers, were not compelled to first seek to place those already here.The result became termed the "revolving door," as new migrant workerswere given permits while the existing ones lost their status and weresubject to deportation.

The plan also puts limits on the type of work a foreign workercan do. Every migrant worker who enters Israel will be designated for aspecific sector, which will appear on his or her permit, and will beforbidden from crossing over to other sectors.

Those who are found not to be working in their designated sector for more than 90 days will be deported.

As of December, there were approximately 255,000 foreign workers here, constituting 10.4% of the labor force.

Approximately 125,000 are illegal workers. Roughly 77,000 legalforeign workers are employed in such fields as nursing, agriculture,construction, and the ethnic Asian restaurant industry. In addition,about 28,000 Palestinian workers enter Israel legally every day.

Shevy Korzen, executive director of the Migrant Workers'Hotline, an organization that aids foreign workers, said the new planhas little in the way of real change.

"If it was a real reform we would accept itwholeheartedly, but when you look at the plan, there is little in itthat is new. It is mostly populist grandstanding mixed with touches ofxenophobia.

"This is far from the comprehensive immigration policy that isneeded," said Korzen. "There is no real solution here because itdoesn't deal with the root of the problem. The state proposes to fixits unemployment problems by tackling foreign workers. It's as if thesepeople fell on us from the sky and not as a result of the governmentitself importing the workers."

Korzen said that every year the government increases the numberof permits for foreign workers and then pushes them into unemploymentand loss of their legal status by not properly regulating the workforce.

"We've seen this happen before. The government comes out withannouncements such as these and follows up on it by deporting severalthousands of illegal workers, but continues to bring new ones in, sothe sum amount doesn't really change," said Korzen.

Korzen also criticized the ministers for using xenophobic language.

"The foreign workers are a convenient scapegoat and easytargets. In most other countries, you hear things like what theministers are saying only on the right-wing fringes of society. Herethe prime minister and the ministers allow themselves to blame theworkers for the results of long-term government policies," she said.

Dr. Roby Nathanson, director-general of the Macro Center forPolitical Economics in Tel Aviv, said the new plan was "sciencefiction." He said that the idea of removing 30,000 illegal workers andreplacing them with Israeli workers is something the government wouldnot be able to do.

"Ariel Sharon proposed something similar when he first cameinto power. He formed the immigration police, but they only managed todeport 3,000-4,000 people a year and Israelis never took their place,"said Nathanson.

Nathanson said that deporting such a large amount of peoplewould cost the government a fortune and would probably not result innew jobs for Israelis.

"Israel, like many other countries, has a foreign workforce of10 percent and like in other countries, they perform jobs that thelocal population aren't interested in doing. I'm talking about the'three Ds' - jobs that are dirty, difficult or dangerous," saidNathanson.

"I'd suggest that the ministers have a good readof the OECD report, which makes valuable recommendations regardinglabor market policy, instead of looking to blame the foreigners for ourproblems."

Ina related development, the Ministerial Committee on Legislationapproved a bill that would grant permanent status to hitherto temporarylegislation against providing aid to illegal sojourners, a law aimed atprimarily at blocking illegal workers from the West Bank.

The law was originally approved in 1996, but only only on aprovisional basis and has had to be periodically renewed by theKnesset. It is currently due to expire on March 31.

The bill seeks to increase the punishment for certain aspects of transporting illegal Palestinian workers into Israel.

The cases include making changes in the vehicle to concealpassengers, transporting at least six passengers into Israel at thesame time, and cases in which a project manager organizes thetransportation.

The punishment will be up to five years in prison if thesuspect is the manager, or organizer of a network aimed at smugglinglarge numbers of illegal aliens into Israel.

Dan Izenberg contributed to this report.