Judicial bulldozing

Cheap labor is more enticing for contractors.

construction modiin 311 (photo credit: Ariel Jerozolimski)
construction modiin 311
(photo credit: Ariel Jerozolimski)
Once in a while officialdom tries to do the right thing, only to find its desirable initiatives end up stymied. But when the obstruction originates in our highest judicial echelons, it is all the more dispiriting.
Quite belatedly, at the end of 2009, the government decided to reduce the number of permits it accords to foreign laborers in the building industry.
Only 5,000 of the 8,000 construction workers currently here were to remain. In the view of many, that cut was not sharp enough, but the decision was a bold step in the right direction and it meant the deportation of 3,000 foreigners as of July 1.
The 3,000 were to be the most veteran – those whose permits had either expired or were up for renewal. The criterion was to be first-in, first-out.
As expected, building contractors were up in arms, as were self-appointed human rights spokesmen. An appeal by 500 workers was lodged with the Jerusalem Administrative Court, while the Contractors Association petitioned the High Court of Justice.
The state had done nothing patently illegal, but the Administrative Court issued an injunction which preempted the scheduled deportation. The High Court then lassoed the already critically hobbled state into a “compromise.”
Since the deportations were in any case impeded, the state has had no choice but to agree to a strange formula whereby the projected deportations will be “postponed” until at least October, and in the interim, new government deliberations will ensue on whether to deport these workers at all.
The signal to the government could not be clearer: It has basically lost the first round of a praiseworthy campaign to significantly reduce the number of foreign employees taking jobs that could be filled by Israelis.
IT IS hard to conceive of a situation whereby the government would return months from now to the High Court and announce that it had decided to modify nothing of its initial plan. What presumably will emerge is going to be – at best – a watered-down version of the original initiative.
This is highly regrettable, foremost because this case constitutes an egregious example of judicial intervention. There was no legal precedent for trampling on the executive branch in this instance and certainly no issue of callous humanitarian abuse.
The prospective deportees weren’t hapless refugees, but economic migrants with temporary permits, which were now either invalid or soon to expire.
Such steps are an executive prerogative. The government is entitled to embark on a policy to encourage Israelis to enter the building trades.
From the contractors’ vantage point, such a policy would be bad for business. Foreigners are largely at their mercy, and earn a fraction of what Israelis would (to say nothing of social benefits), making them preferable to employers. If anything, foreign laborers are apt to be more amenable and deferential.
They’re likelier to submit to outright exploitation, especially as in some cases, workers’ passports are held hostage by their boss.
It serves greedy property developers to claim that Israelis don’t want to work in construction. This is a self-fulfilling prophesy. Since many employers look for workers who’d do more for less, they aren’t likely to attract Israelis – who’d do better subsisting on the dole. A vicious cycle results, which the government was finally trying to break via these deportations.
THERE IS no rational reason why Israelis can’t earn a living in construction, except for the fact that cheap labor is more enticing for contractors.
Construction isn’t one of the employment niches where reliance on foreigners has become indispensable – such as in caring for the elderly and infirm or in seasonal agricultural work, where crops cannot wait for the vagaries of our labor market.
Were foreigners replaced by Israelis, contractors would be forced to pay fair wages. That’s the outstanding objection to Israeli labor. Because jobs are being withheld from Israelis, taxpayers must foot additional unemployment and welfare bills.
Overall, cheap labor – not just on the construction site but in a broad array of enterprises – is exceedingly expensive for Israeli society. We should be able to count on our judges to understand that.