Protecting all workers’ rights

Israel must recognize its complicity in the plight of foreign workers and do substantially more to protect the rights of these vulnerable people.

A THAI laborer works in a watermelon field near Sderot (photo credit: REUTERS)
A THAI laborer works in a watermelon field near Sderot
(photo credit: REUTERS)
When we talk about Israel’s economy, it’s easy to stick to well-worn idioms. From Avodah Ivrit (Hebrew Labor) to the blooming desert, drip irrigation systems to the Start-Up Nation, we are saturated with stories of Jewish technological ingenuity in the Holy Land. Yet while these stories are indeed a part of the history of the Israeli economy, they are quite certainly not all of it.
Take, for instance, Israel’s continued reliance on non-Israeli labor. Before the first intifada, cheap and available workers were almost exclusively Palestinian. Since the ‘90s, however, the Israeli government has made a concerted effort to recruit migrant workers from Southeast Asia, Eastern Europe and elsewhere who have joined Palestinians to make up what today amounts to over 200,000 foreign workers in the country.
These workers have formed the foundation of a number of crucial sectors in the Israeli economy. But unlike the tales of Israeli innovation we are used to hearing, the story of foreign workers in Israel is marred by pervasive exploitation by employers and continued negligence by the Israeli government.
One of the most pervasive and damaging abuses of foreign workers comes in the form of illegal brokerage fees.
The private manpower agencies that recruit foreign workers to come to Israel often collect outlandish sums of money – sometimes over $10,000 – in exchange for facilitating workers’ entry into Israel. This reality intensifies the already vulnerable situation of foreign workers. Deep in debt and fearful of the potential sunk cost if they were to be fired or sick, workers hesitate to report or complain of even the most severe violations of their labor – or human – rights.
Workers, mainly during their first year of work, are de facto bound to their places of employment, stripped of their ability to stand up for themselves in the case that they are taken advantage of.
Such is the case for the 22,000 mostly Thai foreign workers that make up the bulk of migrant agricultural labor in Israel. Though in 2012 Israel and Thailand implemented a passable if flawed bilateral agreement to regulate the private manpower agencies, the reality of unbearable working conditions still exists. Agricultural migrant workers are often forced to work seven days a week for pay that is well below the legal minimum wage of NIS 23.12 (approx. $6.60) per hour.
More, though housing regulations exist for migrant agricultural workers, in practice most residences are embarrassingly inadequate – decrepit shacks crammed with workers, without running water, proper bathrooms, insulation from the cold and rain or respite from the summer heat are the norm.
According to a recent survey conducted by the National Insurance Institute, over 33 percent of all agricultural workers in Israel are paid under minimum wage. Despite this, the government bodies responsible for enforcement of labor law seem determined to turn a blind eye to this widely acknowledged phenomenon. In an already heavily subsidized sector, it is hard to see such lack of enforcement as anything else than a sort of indirect agricultural subsidy – this time, however, the workers themselves carry the burden.
Migrant workers, Palestinians and asylum seekers also make up the vast majority of workers in the construction sector. Construction is by far the most dangerous type of work in Israel – according to research conducted by the Knesset, construction workers are 12 times more likely than the average Israeli to sustain injuries on the job that lead to death.
In general, the Economy and Trade Ministry estimates that approximately 40% of all work accidents, in all sectors, involve foreign workers, Palestinians and asylum seekers. Yet while Israeli National Insurance technically covers these labor groups in the case of work accidents, in practice foreign workers are left paying medical bills out of pocket for months because of the National Insurance Institute’s sluggish work accident claims process for non-Israelis.
In other words, when the people who build Israeli homes and offices get injured on the job, they must take out loans to receive care or, worse, choose to forgo all but the most urgent of treatments.
60,000 migrant workers from Asia and Eastern Europe fill Israel’s need for caregivers for the elderly and disabled. Yet while they care for Israeli grandfathers and grandmothers, there is little evidence the Israeli government cares for them. Given the nature of intensive care for the patients, caregivers, who pay illegal brokerage fees of $8,400 on average, wait on their employers 24 hours a day and are unable to take rest days.
Yet, per a ruling of the Israeli High Court of Justice, caregivers are excluded from the Work and Rest Hours Law, meaning that despite the taxing nature of their work, they make no more than the monthly minimum wage.
That the Israeli government encourages migrant workers to come to Israel makes their tacit consent to widespread maltreatment of foreign workers all the more reprehensible.
Ineffective response to both specific cases of labor-rights violations as well as broader phenomena in the employment of foreign workers is, after all, the primary factor which allows such labor exploitation to continue unchecked.
There are other parts of the story of Israel’s economic history from which to draw inspiration in the face of these rather depressing trends. Israel’s early leaders considered respect for workers’ agency and humanity as vital to a thriving state, and built institutions that mirrored those values. If the State of Israel wants to begin to head in the direction of those commendable standards, it must recognize its complicity in the plight of foreign workers and do substantially more to protect the rights and social benefits of these vulnerable foreign workers.
The author is from New York City and is working at Kav LaOved-Worker’s Hotline for the year.