Hotline: Migrant workers are treated like slaves

Recruiters more interested in profits from work permits than actual work.

police, illegal worker  (photo credit: Ariel Jerozolimski)
police, illegal worker
(photo credit: Ariel Jerozolimski)
Migrant workers in Israel work in conditions that are tantamount to slavery, Yuval Livnat, a member of the Worker's Hotline, charged on Thursday. Livnat was speaking at an international conference on trafficking in persons, sponsored by the Concord Research Center at the College of Management Academic Studies in Rishon Lezion. While Livnat said the government had improved the conditions of the migrant workers to some extent over the past few years, the situation was still grim. Chinese workers, for example, must pay $12,000 for a permit to work in Israel. The fee is often split equally by the manpower companies in China and Israel and the workers' Israeli employers. The profit for the Israelis involved in the deal from the act of recruitment alone is so large that many of them are far more interested in bringing the workers over to Israel with a work permit than actually putting them to work. Often, said Livnat, there is no work for the migrant worker when he arrives here. In such cases, the worker's visa is canceled and he is expelled from the country within a few weeks. The unfortunate migrant nevertheless still owes $12,000, which, in most cases, he has borrowed on the Chinese gray market, which uses violent collection methods. The government, charged Livnat, still enforces regulations that bind workers to their employers, though not as rigidly as in the past; state officials continue to impinge on the workers' liberty and there are increasing encroachments on the social rights guaranteed by law to all employees, including migrant workers. Livnat emphasized that this harsh treatment was meted out to workers who arrived in Israel with a proper visa, even though, as in the example mentioned above, they might lose the visa shortly after their arrival. According to Livnat, there are some 86,000 legal or recently-legal workers in Israel, 17,000 in the construction industry, 27,000 in agriculture, 37,000 in caregiving and 5,000 in hotel and restaurant services. The migrant workers pay from $3,000 to $12,000 for their work visas, depending on the country they come from. Until 2002, Israel maintained an "open sky" policy whereby there were no quotas on the number of licensed workers who could enter the country. When the government changed its policy and decided that a new worker could only enter Israel when one who was already working here left, agencies and employers often fired their workers and even escorted them to the plane, so that they could bring new workers in. For a time, the government then barred new workers altogether and agreed to grant permits to migrants who were in Israel illegally if they met certain conditions. One of the conditions was that the worker must present his passport to the authorities within eight days of the government offer. But in most cases, the worker could not provide a passport because it had been confiscated by his previous employer. When it was hard to obtain visas for construction workers, manpower agencies tried to recruit the highly valuable Chinese workers as caregivers, even though, unlike Filipino migrant workers, for example, none of them spoke English or any other language enabling them to communicate with those they were meant to look after. Only after the Worker's Hotline and Hotline for Migrant Workers human rights organizations protested did the government stop this practice. For many years, Israel bound each migrant worker to his original employer. The worker's visa was considered valid only so long as he worked for his original employer. Later, the state agreed to allow workers to change employers as long as the original employer signed a release form. In many cases, said Livnat, these employers extorted large sums of money in return for signing the release. In other cases, employers "loan" their workers to other employers temporarily without signing a letter of release. When immigration police find workers working for someone else without a release form, they arrest them and send them to jail pending expulsion, said Livnat. Livnat pointed out that until June 2005, when Israeli officials apparently came to understand the overtones of the word, they described workers who left their jobs without a release as "runaways." Recently, the law was changed. If a migrant worker leaves his employer, he is entitled to a temporary visa of 30 days to find new work, on condition that the new employer has a permit to employ a migrant worker. Despite such improvements, the circumstances of migrant workers remain harsh. Livnat said that three months ago the Ministry of Industry and Trade revoked an employer's permits to employ 10 foreign workers because he did not pay them. Two weeks later, the immigration police arrested the workers because their visas stated that they were working for the employer, who had meanwhile lost the right to employ them. "There are many crazy cases like this," said Livnat. "Migrant workers are not treated like human beings because their liberty is so easily denied."