Conversations that revolve around human-rights related concerns in Israel are generally focused on two issues: Israel’s treatment of Palestinians and of asylum seekers from various African nations. An often overlooked issue, though equally pressing, is the plight of migrant workers in Israel who come in search of work.
By the end of the 1980s, approximately 115,000 Palestinians worked in Israel, commonly in agriculture, construction and other service-related positions. As a result of security concerns and the subsequent restriction of Palestinian movement into Israel, that number has shrunk significantly over the last 25 years. To make up the difference in its labor force, Israel began granting more permits to migrant workers, whose number is currently estimated to be near 300,000 (far outweighing the number of African asylum seekers). This constitutes a significant 11% of the entire Israeli labor force, twice the average in OECD members.
Migrant workers largely arrive to Israel from underdeveloped countries in Asia, Eastern Europe and Latin America. A fact-finding mission of the International Federation for Human Rights (FIDH; 2003) found that over two-thirds of these 300,000 migrant workers are in Israel illegally, even though many of them entered the country legally. This is due to their possession of expired visas — many workers cannot afford to travel back home — or as a result of changing jobs or employers. Consequently, their rights are even more limited than they were upon entry, and like undocumented workers elsewhere, they withhold from complaining to the authorities out of fear of arrest or deportation, which occur frequently. Moreover, their passports are often held by their employers, and if they protest to their employers they will in all probability be fired, if not have their legal identification confiscated permanently. Sometimes Israel’s very own Interior Ministry hands the worker’s passport to his or her employer, further binding migrant workers to their employers.
In some instances, similar to victims of human traffickers, the FIDH has found that migrant workers paid several thousands of dollars to enter Israel after signing false contracts entitling them to decent salaries in Israel. Upon entry, they find that these jobs do not exist, and they often end up indebted, jobless and homeless. The FIDH report found that this process is further fueled by the lucrative nature of recruiting foreign workers in to Israel. On one occasion, the FIDH learned that an Israeli firm that recruits migrant workers had put out a notice offering $3,000 for the return of six Romanians who had fled their employers, evoking unsettling parallels to slave catchers during the antebellum period. The Israeli government does nothing to ensure that foreign workers do not become indebted to their employers, which often takes an entire year of labor to repay.
Much of the problem is Israel’s lack of enforcement of its own laws. As a nation that prides itself on promoting Jewish values, Israel has laws pertaining to minimum wage, severance pay, rest hours, sickness pay, maternity leave, work conditions, health insurance and satisfactory accommodation. The problem is that they fail to be implemented at the most basic level for migrant workers. For example, according to a study performed by Daniel Gotleib on behalf of the Bank of Israel and Ben-Gurion University, over 80% of male migrant workers in Israel had been paid under the minimum wage that year.
These facts are as disturbing as they are undisputed, and one would hope that with the coming elections in Israel, the status of migrant workers would be a more prominent issue. In reality, however, this is far from the case. Other than the occasional call from Meretz or others on the far-left of the Israeli political scene, there is hardly a sound made in reference to the rights of migrant workers. More often than not, migrant workers are referred to in the public discourse as parasites, invaders and infiltrators who are “stealing” jobs from Israelis—even though they are brought to Israel to perform jobs that Israelis typically refuse themselves. Moreover, lobbying efforts further influence the already reprehensible policies of Minister of Interior, Eli Yishai, who has smugly established himself as a fierce opponent to anything resembling human rights for asylum seekers and migrant workers. (And all of this, Yishai claims, is in the best interest of protecting the Jewish character of the state, which he believes stems from the existence of a Jewish gene that has matrilineal descent.)
NGOs in Israel, such as Kav La’Oved and the Hotline for Migrant Workers, advocate on behalf of migrant workers, but without political will in the Knesset, their impact is unfortunately limited. One hopes that with several mainstream parties, such as Labor and Yesh Atid, running on primarily domestic platforms in the coming elections, the plight of foreign workers will finally receive the attention it deserves. At the very least, Israel deserves a Minister of Interior with a broader focus than Yishai, who caters to a small percentage of the population. Until then, the status of migrant workers in Israel will continue to be a source of shame for our nation.