In Israel, who cares for the migrant caregivers?

Based on the hours they work, caregivers are making NIS 5.8 ($1.50) per hour, which is 25 percent of the legal minimum wage in Israel.

Filipina caregivers training in Manila  (photo credit: REUTERS)
Filipina caregivers training in Manila
(photo credit: REUTERS)
Migrant caregivers are one of the most vulnerable groups of workers in Israel. While the Israeli government should protect them from exploitation and abuse, caregivers are actually stripped of their rights to a greater extent than any other group of migrant laborers in Israel. They receive the fewest protections and the most restrictions on their freedom. International Migrants Day, observed this week, gives us a chance to reflect on what causes this unparalleled treatment.
There are currently 60,000 migrant caregivers in Israel; the largest group of documented migrant workers in the country. These workers provide individualized, home-based care for the elderly and severely disabled. The vast majority (80 percent) of these workers are women, mostly hailing from the Philippines, Nepal, Sri Lanka, India and Moldova. These migrant caregivers are in an inherently weak position due to their gender, race, class and lack of citizenship.
Migrant caregivers face unique employment conditions. Unlike most jobs, their workplaces are private homes and they develop personal, intimate relationships with their employers.
Additionally, they are legally mandated to live in their employer’s house as well as work 24 hours a day, six days a week. These circumstances often lead to social isolation, an expansion of duties, and a blurred distinction between rest and work hours. Some caregivers report never being able to rest because their employer calls on them at all hours of the night. When they are not caring for their patient, they are often required to clean the house or even do chores for their patient’s friends and family members.
Furthermore, patients play the role of both employers and landlords. As such, caregivers find themselves dependent upon them not only for employment but also for their living conditions. Some caregivers complain about restrictions on movement or insufficient access to food. It is not unheard of for caregivers to share a room or even a bed with their elderly patient. Workers often feel powerless to challenge this lack of security and privacy for fear of losing their job. The interdependence of work and shelter both increases the risk of abuse and can prevent violations from being detected.
It is often argued that caregivers should be provided with extra protections due to their inherent vulnerability.
Unfortunately, we do the exact opposite. In the government’s attempts to protect the elderly or disabled employers, it consistently infringes upon the rights of migrant caregivers. Although they are required to live-in and work 24/6, migrant caregivers are not entitled to overtime pay. They are officially excluded from the Work and Rest Hours Law because the Supreme Court ruled that if they were to be paid fully, patients would no longer be able to afford this type of care. Thus, based on the hours they work, in effect caregivers are making NIS 5.8 ($1.50) per hour, which is 25 percent of the legal minimum wage in Israel.
In an effort to prevent caregivers from leaving their fragile employers, the government recently enacted what is commonly referred to as the “Slavery Law.” This legislation restricts the number of times caregivers can change employers as well as limits the geographical area in which they can work. This policy makes it harder for caregivers to escape an unsafe or unfair employment situation. It also represents a restriction of freedom that is unparalleled in any other labor sector in Israel.
RECRUITMENT PRACTICES are another way in which caregivers are uniquely under-protected. Unlike the other major industries in Israel that rely on migrant workers, the caregiving sector lacks a bilateral agreement with a sending country. Without the supervision of the International Organization of Migration, recruitment is rife with corruption. Illegal mediation fees – typically around $10,000 – are standard. The debt that results is exorbitant, taking years to pay off, all the while exacerbating the workers’ economic dependence on their employers.
Policy makers concerned with the needs of the patients are unnecessarily sacrificing migrant caregivers’ rights. However, this is not a zero-sum game; policies can be designed to protect both groups simultaneously. Other countries and international bodies are increasingly acknowledging the vulnerabilities of domestic workers and the need for such policies. Recently, the International Labor Organization singled out these workers as being uniquely in need of extra protection in the Domestic Workers Convention (C-189). Unfortunately, Israel is not a signatory.
The very qualities that make migrant caregivers uniquely vulnerable and in need of government protection – namely their personal characteristics and the special nature of their employment conditions – are the very same factors that have led the Israeli government to strip away their rights. To rectify this protection gap, and in light of International Migrants Day, I would implore Israel to reconsider the moral imperative underlying the Domestic Workers Convention. We have the ability and the obligation to take care of all people employed in Israel, especially – not excluding – the most vulnerable workers.
The author is a PhD candidate at the City University of New York Graduate Center. She is currently a Shatil fellow at Kav LaOved.