Inspectors arrest 8 illegal workers at TA Sheraton, fine hotel NIS 100,000
'There won't be anybody here who the legislature has decided shouldn't be here' commander says.
By RON FRIEDMAN
A squad of inspectors from the Immigration Authority's Oz unit, accompanied by officials from the Industry, Trade and Trade Ministry, raided the Sheraton Hotel in Tel Aviv on Wednesday to search for illegal workers.
Eleven employees suspected of working illegally were detained and eight were eventually taken into custody. The hotel was fined NIS 100,000.
The forces converged at the entrance to the hotel at 1 p.m., blocked the exits and proceeded to enter the hotel through the main lobby. Inspectors apprehended suspects and accompanied them to the staff locker room, which served as a holding room until the search was completed.
In the meantime, other officers started a floor-by-floor sweep of the hotel, where additional employees were found at work or hiding in empty guest rooms.
Oz inspectors went from room to room and through the hotel kitchen's dining rooms, conference rooms and even the pool in their search. Anyone they suspected was asked to present their passport or papers that could prove they were permitted to work.
While the raid on the Sheraton was the first large-scale operation conducted by the Interior Ministry's newly formed unit - up now, the unit has focused on private homes and restaurants - squad leader Lior promised it wouldn't be the last.
"We want everyone to know that we are determined to find and apprehend anybody who is breaking Israel's employment laws and will continue to conduct raids and searches whenever we learn of illegal actions taking place."
A sign on the wall of the worker's changing room encourages employees to "Go back to work with a smile," but it was mostly tears for the six women and five men detained by the officers.
A majority of these workers were asylum-seekers from African countries. An additional worker was a Philippines national who was apprehended while working with a construction team on the 20th floor, which is currently being renovated.
Of the 11, three were immediately released because they were mothers of young children. The remaining eight were taken to the unit's holding center in Holon, where they were to be questioned and depending on their specific case, either released or transferred to a detention center in Ramle.
Asylum-seekers are protected by the United Nations High Commission for Refugees, which allows them to reside in Israel, within certain geographic boundaries (north of Hadera and south of Gadera), but doesn't give them permission to work. These people cannot be deported because they face risk of harm in their home countries.
While the Oz inspectors were there to find illegal workers, Industry, Trade and Employment Ministry officials were on hand to deal with the employers.
"Fines for people who employ illegal workers can rage from NIS 10,000 to 20,000 for first offenses, double that for second offenses and indictments for third-time offenders," said a ministry official, who cannot be identified.
"We hire refugees to fill up jobs that Israelis won't do, jobs like cleaning rooms and carrying garbage. You'll find it's the same all across the industry," said Sheraton Tel Aviv's human resources director Vered Kachtan.
"These foreign workers were hired through an employment agency and are all permitted to work here. They receive excellent conditions and good pay. As far as we're concerned they are exactly the same as all of our other employees, if we thought for a moment that it was illegal, we wouldn't hire them."
Tourism Minister Stas Meseznikov strongly criticized yesterday's raid.
"We are fighting over every tourist, who, as a result of his decision to visit Israel, contributes to economic growth and the creation of new jobs," he said.
"This raid, which was carried out in a harsh and aggressive manner in the middle of the day and in a hotel full of tourists, many of whom were guests of the Maccabiah Games, impacts on the endeavors of the Tourism Ministry and, worst of all, harms the tourist experience and the image of Israel as a preferred tourism destination," said Meseznikov, who is currently on a working visit to the United States to increase incoming tourism, which has been affected by the global economic crisis and the Gaza operation.
Meseznikov said he supports enforcing the law, but on his return, he would approach Interior Minister Eli Yishai with an urgent request to discuss ways to enforce the law that will not hurt tourism or tourists at the very height of the season.
Oz unit commander Tziki Sela did not sound too concerned.
"This raid was part of our routine operations, the same activities we'll do tomorrow and the day after tomorrow," said Sela. "I expect my people to initiate actions that advance our mission and I consider [Wednesday's] raid a successful one and its results satisfactory.
"These businesses are doing harm to themselves by employing illegal workers. I think it's appropriate that those who break the law should be hurt economically," said Sela. "I want all the employers in Israel to take note. Whoever breaks the law is exposed to enforcement by the authorities, even if as a result they are seriously harmed.
"I also want to send a message to the rest of the world that we will not tolerate illegal employment. I hope that message will discourage those people who think they can come here and take advantage of the system from coming.
"We will solve this problem," he continued. "There won't be anybody here who the legislature has decided shouldn't be here. We will turn every stone and look around every corner, in the fields, in the factories, in the hotels, in the streets, in the homes, in the city and in the country, everywhere that people are breaking the law, we will act."
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