Big trouble in little China

NGO Kav LaOved trying to protect Chinese workers from new legislation, huge debts and swindling bosses.

Chinese workers 88 248 (photo credit: Mya Guarnieri)
Chinese workers 88 248
(photo credit: Mya Guarnieri)
As the sky darkens over the sagging cement buildings of South Tel Aviv, the city's poorest area, Chinese workers gather on the sidewalk outside Kav LaOved, a local NGO. Inside, the Israeli translators who volunteer their time to Kav LaOved every Monday night prepare. "It's like a party out there," one comments about the crowd that has accumulated outside. But no one is celebrating. Though Chinese workers comprise one of the smallest groups of foreign workers in Israel, numbering roughly 20,000 of the estimated 300,000 migrant workers in the country, they pay the largest amount of money to enter Israel. Though this "entry fee" - paid to employment agencies who arrange for jobs and visas - is illegal, foreign workers pay it overseas, far from the prying eyes of the Israeli government. An Indian worker who obtains work in Israel typically scrambles together $10,000 in loans to pay the fee; the going rate for a Chinese worker to secure employment and a visa is now $31,000. As Chinese workers arrive in Israel towing a tremendous debt, problems loom large on the horizon. Recently, a law that called for phasing out foreign construction workers by 2010 had Chinese migrant workers, a group that works almost exclusively in the construction sector, in a panic. As 2010 drew nearer, unconfirmed reports of deportation circulated amongst both the Chinese and NGO workers. New arrivals feared they would have no way to repay their staggering debt. Kav LaOved quickly sprang into action. "We started taking affidavits to petition the Supreme Court so those people could stay," Dana Shaked, the NGO's Chinese worker coordinator, says. But before Kav LaOved could assemble its case, the government bowed to pressure from the construction industry and changed the law. Though migrant workers will still be purged from the construction sector, the move will happen gradually because the government aims to have only 5,000 foreign laborers here by October of 2010, 2,000 by 2011 and none by 2012. But, Shaked observes, because foreign workers typically spend the first two years of their five-year, three-month visa paying off their debts, "Some workers who have recently arrived or will arrive this year won't have time to pay back their loans." Time isn't the only obstacle Chinese workers face in regard to repaying their debts. Some Chinese laborers are systematically deprived of their wages by unscrupulous employers and "small bosses," Chinese who speak Hebrew and serve as go-betweens from the Israeli employers to the Chinese laborers. "It's a phenomenon," Shaked says of non-payment. As Kav LaOved opens its doors and the workers drift in, one after another, their stories are testimonies to this widespread problem. CHEN YOU Hua, 50, left his native Fujian four years ago to work in Israel. "The salaries in China are too low," he says. "We can't live, we can't support our families." Here, Hua joined the minority of Chinese laborers who work in factories rather than in construction. Still, he faces difficult conditions. Hua works 14 hours a day. Several months ago, his employer suddenly slashed his wages in half without an explanation or without reducing his hours. Despite this, Hua is reluctant to leave his job - like other Chinese workers, the scarcity of labor and fear of unemployment keeps him mired in exploitative conditions. And because Hua sleeps in the factory, leaving his job would also leave him homeless. Thirty-four-year-old Gu Meim is an unemployed construction worker who tells a similar tale. Several months ago, the contractor he worked for cut his wages; shortly thereafter, his employer quit paying him altogether. The construction company claims he quit, while Meim claims he was fired. Meim, who is currently searching for a job, still has a roof over his head thanks to the friends he moved in with in South Tel Aviv. They number nearly two dozen in their small apartment; they survive on little more than rice. Lin Jin, 44, is a construction worker and a native of Jiang Su. He complains his small boss has not been paying him for the overtime work he has been doing. Because Jin has been receiving cash for his work, he has no documentation of this. "The money ought to go to the bank," his translator comments. In a situation like this, there is little recourse for a worker. So Jin decides to look for new work; a translator helps him draft a resignation letter in Hebrew. Like Jin, most Chinese laborers speak neither Hebrew nor English. This enormous language barrier effectively keeps them confined to the construction industry, blocking them out of jobs that require interaction with Israelis. In addition to their linguistic isolation, many construction workers are also isolated physically, working and living in far-flung construction sites all over the country. Unable to communicate with those in the world around them, Chinese workers are sometimes left unable to ask for the help they need. "SOMETIMES WE receive phone calls [from Chinese workers]. But because they don't speak English or Hebrew, we can't even get a phone number from them so we can call them back with a translator," says Eyal Goldstein of Migrant Workers' Hotline, another Israeli NGO that assists foreign workers. "There is a hierarchy created by language," Goldstein adds. The small bosses are a part of that system, wielding considerable power over the laborers below them. This leaves workers vulnerable to abuses that go beyond non-payment of wages. Zvi Helfgott is a Tel Aviv-based attorney who represents Chinese workers. "I have taken cases to court that involved severe violence and physical abuse by the Chinese boss. A few of these workers were beaten to the point of requiring hospitalization." Helfgott is coming to Kav LaOved to speak to one such worker, the victim of a vicious assault. Helfgott's client sits with his rough, calloused hands in his lap. He politely declines an interview. Despite the gloomy picture that emerges at Kav LaOved on Monday nights, Shaked is quick to point out that the overall situation Chinese workers face has actually improved in recent years. In the past, foreign workers who were employed in the construction industry were subject to a law known as the binding arrangement. The binding arrangement links the worker's visa directly to his employer - if a worker loses his job, he also loses his visa, leaving him subject to deportation. Critics of the binding arrangement liken it to modern-day slavery. While foreign workers in some industries still remain subject to the binding arrangement, those in the construction sector are no longer bound to their employer. Instead they are bound to the manpower agencies that supply contractors with laborers. Although Kav LaOved and Migrant Workers' Hotline both report that under this new law they receive fewer complaints from Chinese workers than they used to, Goldstein points out that the new system still "creates a similar dynamic as being bound to an employer." "Before the linking to the manpower agencies, it was total chaos," Shaked says. "Now we have some companies [manpower agencies] who are troublemakers." THESE AGENCIES have figured out ways to systematically cheat laborers out of wages. As laborers move from one manpower agency to another, their former agency might simply withhold their last month's pay, claiming the worker quit without notice. Sometimes agencies give only a portion of the worker's monthly salary, claiming he received the rest as an advance. In both situations, it's the word of the worker against the word of the agency, and Kav LaOved is left to mediate. "We're a watchdog for the manpower agencies," Shaked says. "Without Kav LaOved, there would be no one to help the workers. We're basically doing the government's job for it." Shaked is not only concerned about the exploitation of Chinese laborers in Israel - she is also worried about the fate of those who have yet to arrive. With the doors to Israel's construction industry rapidly slamming shut, Shaked says, "People in China need to know they won't have 63 months here." This is a sentiment Goldstein echoes. But because a majority of Chinese laborers enter and remain in Israel illegally, he's not optimistic about stopping the flow of workers into the country. "As we're talking, more are arriving," he says.