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Still dirty, dangerous, and demeaning

While conditions for domestic workers slowly improve in Western countries, they are fast eroding in Israel

International Women’s Day has come and gone, yet one sector that is overwhelmingly female — both in Israel and abroad — received scant attention.

In the US and Europe, among the many recent social movements, arguably none has been more hopeful than the struggle for the rights of domestic workers, who are often employed in positions that exemplify the 3 D’s of the labor world – dirty, dangerous, and demeaning. Though domestic workers continue to suffer from pay below the minimum wage, from the lack of a formal contract or of control over work conditions, there are indications that the reality of domestic work in Europe and the United States slowly beginning to change for the better.

For example, in the past three years New York, California, and Hawaii have each passed a “Domestic Worker’s Bill of Rights” designed to offer basic labor protections to those working in private homes; Regulations for domestic labor written by the International Labor Organization (ILO) have been ratified fully by a handful of countries, including Italy and Germany; Most recently, in September 2013, President Obama, spurred by pressure in the US as well as the ILO’s lead, announced that federal minimum wage and overtime laws would be extended to migrant domestic workers beginning in January 2015.

This progress stands in stark contrast to the situation of domestic workers in Israel, and in particular, migrant caregivers, who constitute the largest group of domestic workers in Israel. There are some 60,000 migrant caregivers in Israel, mostly from the Philippines, Nepal, India, Sri Lanka and Moldova. Yet while migrant caregivers make up a significant portion of Israel’s migrant female population, the Israeli government has failed abjectly in protecting their labor and human rights.

Similar to their status in other countries, caregivers in Israel are extremely vulnerable to labor exploitation. In order to even arrive in Israel, migrant caregivers pay exorbitant illegal brokerage fees that leave them in debt bondage for the first year or two of their employment; a 2013 Kav LaOved – Worker’s Hotline survey revealed that caregivers pay an average of $8,400 to private manpower companies in exchange for work permits.

Moreover, because of the live-in arrangements forced on caregivers by the Israeli government, migrant caregivers often work 24/7 and are denied rest days for months at a time. Complaints of emotional assault and sexual and physical violence by employers and their family members are not unusual, and caregivers have been hospitalized for nervous breakdown stemming from the burden of their work.

In the face of this cruel reality for migrant caregivers, the Israeli government has not only been unresponsive, but has even taken a number of drastic legislative and legal steps to worsen labor exploitation in the sector. In May 2011, the Knesset passed an amendment to the “Entry to Israel” law, which, among other things, severely limited migrants’ ability to change employers or regions of employment within Israel. An earlier, similar version of these amendments was named “a type of modern-day slavery” by the Israeli High Court of Justice.

Then, in 2013, the Israeli High Court of Justice ruled that the “Work and Rest Hours” law does not apply to the caregiving sector. This law, which ensures workers in Israel the right to overtime pay and adequate break time, constitutes one of the most basic protections in Israeli labor law, and the High Court decision marked the first time that a specific labor sector was actively excluded from the labor law that protects workers in Israel. In practice, the decision meant that caregivers, though on the job 24/7 and often doing physically demanding labor, are treated as if they work from 9-5 for monthly minimum wage.

To make matters worse, two weeks ago the Ministry of the Interior confirmed the 2011 amendment to the Entry into Israel law through a new set of regulations. As the original amendment set out, caregivers are now formally limited to work in certain geographical area and only have the right to switch employers freely twice in two years. These regulations hurt precisely the caregivers who are most vulnerable in Israel – those isolated from their communities or support structures, and those who want to switch employers following exploitation, harassment or abuse.

Put simply, as conditions for domestic workers in many Western countries are slowly improving, the conditions for domestic workers in Israel are quickly worsening. According to Kav LaOved’s Caregiving Sector Coordinator, Idit Lebovitch: “Recent decisions by the Israeli Government and High Court of Justice reflect utter detachment from reality, willful ignorance of what is taking place in the international sphere, and callous violations of basic human rights.” Though International Women’s Day is a time to celebrate the progress made in terms of gender discrimination, it is also a time to reflect on where we fall short. Israel, it seems, has a lot of reflecting to do.

About the Author
Jacob Udell is from New York City and is working at Kav LaOved-Worker’s Hotline for the year.