Caretakers behind bars

Foreign workers came to Israel looking for employment with a modicum of dignity. We must act now to ensure they aren't abused, mistreated.

Immigration officials and foreign workers in TA 311 (R) (photo credit: REUTERS)
Immigration officials and foreign workers in TA 311 (R)
(photo credit: REUTERS)
Givon Ramla prison is one of the ugliest spots in an otherwise pleasant countryside. As in other jails, prisoners are isolated from the outside world by a high wall topped by rolls of barbed wire. But unlike other detention centers, there are no armed guards at the four corner towers, because there are no dangerous criminals inside. Here, the inmates are the men and women whose dreams, efforts and the sacrifices that they have made for themselves and their families have been shattered.
They now await deportation after shelling out $5,000 to $10,000 to brokers for the privilege of coming here from the Philippines, Nepal, Sri Lanka, Ethiopia, Eastern Europe and many other countries and points beyond. They left their cities and villages where devastating poverty ruled supreme and there was no chance for advancement, all in order to provide for their children’s education.
There was no employment or profit to be made from honest labor in their countries of origin, so they sought these in Israel. There are over 100,000 foreign workers in Israel today, many of whom provide round the clock service with no overtime. They take care of the elderly and disabled, the needy and the terminally ill. There might have been some instances of a trouble or complaints about a few individuals, but this happens in every social profession. Over all, these workers offer good service at a minimum wage.
On the positive side it must be stressed that while working legally they enjoyed, by a special contract and legislation, all rights of the ordinary Israeli worker that they hardly ever enjoyed at home. But once those contracts expired, the country that exploited their devotion concluded it needed them no more. Some lost their visas when they wished to change employers, other when their wards died or their five-year residency visas expired.
The law restricts the number of times a foreign caregiver can change employers during the five years of legal employment, limits workers to specific geographical areas defined upon their arrival and confines them to working with a specific category of patients. This creates practical slavery. While the authorities allow them to stay with some patients even much longer, or until they die, not every caretaker is so fortunate.
Furthermore, there have been many instances where employers have withheld or slashed salaries. Many have been subjected to sexual harassment, physical abuse, inadequate living and diet conditions and/or verbal abuse, but they were forced to to keep quiet in order to retain their jobs and visas. Even where a worker had the right to request permission to change jobs, he ran a great risk in doing so because if his request was denied, he would have to leave the country.
Certainly there are many good and honest hosts who received excellent and devoted service, and there are countless stories of real friendships that have developed between honest, understanding employers and their caretakers. But many other employers failed to understand that they were often dealing with young, inexperienced women from outlying and primitive provinces who suddenly found themselves in a modern, foreign country, speaking a different language and trying to meet demands like feeding and taking care of a patient’s family.
Most caretakers are burdened with debts and financial obligations. They are expected to send money home, to support their parents, to give their children an education. All of them try to save money, but they often receive requests for urgent aid from home. For all of them, the loss of visa and deportation means a painful failure, potentially even a catastrophe for an entire family.
Visiting hours at Givon Prison are for just two hours every Monday and Wednesday. Those same hours are allotted for employers to deliver personal belongings to their former employees. The procedure can be very complicated, and in at least one case an employer just left the belongings of his former caretaker on the street outside the prison gate.
WHAT SHOULD be done? There is no question that illegal infiltrators and tourists who overstay their visas should be deported. But prisons should be reserved for lawbreakers. They are hardly fit for the simple hardworking men and women who came to Israel to perform vital, and often very unpleasant, tasks that no Israelis wanted. Through no fault of their own they found themselves to be fugitives, hunted mercilessly for deportation.
As a group the caretakers should be separated from all other foreign workers and enjoy special privileges. Neither the granting nor the extending of the caretakers’ visa should be an automatic function performed by the usual immigration officials. Rather, good caretakers should be given every consideration, and the conditions of their sojourn in Israel should be decided by qualified people in a qualified body. Furthermore, the duration of their stay should be left to the caretaker’s record and his employer’s recommendations.
Many caretakers regularly attend church services and maintain a strong belief in the Bible. They came to Israel expecting Jews to treat them in accordance with the Torah’s instructive “You shall not abuse a needy and destitute laborer, whether a fellow countryman, or a stranger in one of the communities of your land” (Deuteronomy 24:14). Our country must act to right this painful wrong and stain on our collective record.
The writer is former director of The Jerusalem Post archives.