The US State Department recently published its annual report on trafficking in persons. Here is what it had to say about Israel:
"Israel is a destination country for low-skilled workersâ€¦ Some are subsequently subjected to conditions of involuntary servitude. Many labor recruitment agencies in source countries and in Israel require workers to pay up-front fees ranging from $1,000-10,000 - a practice that often leads to debt bondage and makes these workers highly vulnerable to forced labor once in Israelâ€¦ The Government of Israel does not fully comply with the minimum standards for the elimination of traffickingâ€¦ The government did not pass a much-needed law criminalizing all forms of trafficking, including labor trafficking, drafted in 2003."
It is symptomatic of the contemporary Pax Americana that the US rates each and every country in the world for its efforts to counter trafficking - except for itself. But this blind spot does not nullify the conclusions of the report.
Although there have been some improvements concerning trafficking in women for sex, trafficking in persons for forced labor is not even recognized as a problem by the Israeli government. Israel is the only Western country rated "Tier 2 Watch List" by the US, which means that unless a genuine change is made it will find itself next year in the lowest tier, triggering severe limitations on foreign aid.
BUT THE PROBLEM is not simply that the state of Israel fails to fight trafficking. The real problem is that the state of Israel actively enables trafficking. Here is a recent example:
Two Chinese workers entered Israel with a legal work permit on December 25, 2005. In order to obtain their permits they each went into debt so as to pay middlemen a sum of $15,000, illegally charged.
But here's the catch: The permits given to the workers were valid only until December 31, 2005. Yes - for only six days!
In 2006, the number of migrant worker permits was reduced, and, subsequently, the two workers found themselves in an illegal situation. Having become "illegal," the workers are subject to imminent deportation. But obviously they cannot afford to return to China without repaying their mediation debts. They must therefore work clandestinely, accepting whatever form of servitude and exploitation is imposed upon them.
This situation is a direct result of Israeli policy. The lack of enforcement of the ban on mediation fees, the arbitrary and senseless permit policy, the fact that the workers cannot seek a new employer legally - these are the direct causes of the victimization of these two Chinese workers and many of their colleagues.
UNTIL RECENTLY I thought that the state could not be reproached for not enforcing the ban on charging mediation fees. These transactions take place outside Israel, and even though most of the money finds its way into the hands of Israeli employers and middleman, it is difficult to track it down.
Surprisingly, however, an Israeli middleman was recently convicted for collecting mediation fees. But the victim in this specific case was not a Chinese worker, but the Chinese middlemen. The state will not protect the rights of workers; but it does make a significant effort to enforce the rights of the middlemen - the very middlemen who then traffic in workers for forced labor.
Here is another very recent example of the way the state encourages abuse of migrant workers: On a site tour to investigate the living conditions of Thai agriculture workers, Kav LaOved's volunteers found some of them housed in appalling conditions - in storage rooms, on tin boards and in cardboard boxes. So, like good citizens, they called upon the police to enforce the law.
When the police eventually came, about a week later, they arrested some of the workers for being "illegal" - which basically means that the employers traded the workers illegally, or neglected to renew their permits. Given this kind of "protection" policy, Kav LaOved will obviously think twice before reporting further cases to the police.
Three months ago the Supreme Court stated that the current method of regulating the employment of migrant workers in Israel constitutes slavery, and must be changed. Kav LaOved's interaction with the authorities indicates that the changes which are about to be implemented are strictly cosmetic.
Despite the court's ruling the State of Israel intends to continue to actively enable trafficking in workers for forced labor.
THIS SITUATION cannot continue. Israel must change its attitude toward the migrant workers it actively solicits as a means to facilitate economic growth. Israel must immediately stop falsely accusing the very workers it willingly invites of generating unemployment. Israel must promptly revise regulations which subject workers to servitude.
The government must stop deporting workers while at the same time inviting others in; so far, more workers are legally invited in each year than are deported.
The state must treat migrant workers as human beings, and stop treating them as tools which can be brought in and discarded for the profit of slave-drivers and traffickers in human beings.
The writer is a board member for worker rights NGO Kav LaOved (Worker's Hotline, www.kavlaoved.org.il).