Fighting the injustices of our Filipino neighbors is the right thing to do.
Heart pounding and fighting the urge to change my mind, I recently found myself in in the bowels of the Tel Aviv central bus station on a stifling and sticky day. Taking a few deep breaths, I prepared myself for a terrifying confrontation with a pawnbroker / loan shark in an underworld I had no idea existed here in Israel until just a few months ago.
The issue came to my attention near the end of the COVID-19 lockdown when a Filipino lady (let’s call her Josie) who works for an elderly couple I check on from time to time just fell apart one day. Josie told me how she was being harassed to pay back her loans and even sold her jewelry to keep her head above water. She had no money and her family back in the Philippines had no food.
It is common to see a Filipino caregiver walking patiently with an elderly Israeli or another tediously cleaning someone’s home. But since making aliyah five years ago, I never really asked myself how they got here or how life was for this mild-mannered and respectful community.
I learned that Filipinos come to Israel and other countries because they can make significantly more money abroad than in the Philippines. A nurse, for instance, may earn $200 a month in the Philippines, but in Israel they can earn around at least $1,500 (1,000) after taxes and rent per month as a full-time caregiver. It is common for the wage earner to leave behind their children with their spouse or parents, and go live overseas with the intention of sending money back to the family, working hard and then returning to the Philippines with savings. They usually sign up through an agency, which organizes their visas and gives them some training and a few words of Hebrew.
Then they arrive in Israel and reality sets in. The cost of living in Israel is higher, so they cannot save as much. The agency that arranged for Josie’s employment charge her a placement fee of over $10,000. Such exorbitant fees are illegal under Israeli and Filipino law but the unscrupulous operator circumvent the law by calling it a “training” fee and preying on Josie’s ignorance of the laws.
Josie didn’t have the money upfront, so she took out a loan with a loan shark in the Philippines with a shocking interest rate of 10% per month (equivalent to a staggering 213% per annum) which she would pay back over her first year. With limited financial literacy, Josie stepped off the plane in Israel blissfully unaware of her impending financial disaster.
What ensued was a cruel domino effect of the inability to service her loan together with the shame of not sending enough money home to the Philippines. Josie took out one loan after another from other loan sharks (often Filipinas themselves, some married to Israelis). As she grew more desperate, so the monthly interest rates were ratcheted up and the depths of her financial crisis and despair deepened. Intimidation, threats of going to the authorities and having her working visa revoked and public shaming of her family in the Philippines made for a hellish existence. These outlandish interest rates are illegal in Israel and the hastily hand-written “contract” governing the loan is not enforceable but Josie did not know that.
This all happens right here in Israel and I was incensed that all of this was going on right under my nose — and I had no idea. A quick survey of my friends and others in the community revealed that most of us were in the dark regarding this obscene injustice.
I immediately strategized on how I could help my friend. I contacted these loan sharks anonymously representing “a group of concerned citizens” helping Filipinos renegotiate their loans to a manageable interest rate. Since most of this is illegal anyway, a majority of them capitulated right away and cut some of her loans to capital only payments. Several of my friends and I gave Josie and others in the same situation interest free loans to be able to settle some of their debts.
But my friend had also deposited her wedding jewelry with a pawn broker, with a bewildering and illegal set of interest rates, penalties, storage fees and the like. This is how I landed up in the murky world of pawn brokerage in the Tel Aviv central bus station on that blistering day.
If anyone understands the importance of support when moving to a new city or country, it is the Jews. When my husband and I moved to New York from Australia, we encountered dozens of organizations that offered support including the Hebrew Immigrant Aid Society (HIAS), a nonprofit founded to aid Jewish refugees and today assists any refugees. When moving to Israel, same thing — from Nefesh B’Nefesh to the Jerusalem Olim Center we had support.
Israel is famous for rising to the occasion to help wherever needed most. When a natural disaster hits anywhere in the world, a team of Israelis is dispatched almost immediately to help in recovery efforts.
And yet here is a dark crisis slithering just below the surface in our cities and towns.
Tikkun olam (repairing the world) and social justice are pillars of who we are. But we must remember, sometimes the “world” includes the people in our own neighborhood.
We are the People of the Book. The “Book” tells us, “a stranger who lives amongst you, and you shall love him as yourself, because you were strangers in the land of Egypt.” (Vayikra 19:34).
We are obligated to educate ourselves about these issues with our foreign workers, we must take responsibility against the injustices being done to them, demand laws are enforced and unscrupulous people make to stop these evil practices.
And what of our shadowy friends at the Tel Aviv bus station? Well in the words of prominent African-American scholar and liberation activist, Anna Julia Cooper, “Bullies are always cowards at heart and may be credited with a pretty safe instinct in scenting their prey.” Armed with a knowledge of the law, compound interest calculations and (at least the façade of) a brave and determined face, the pawn brokers’ initial aggressive and intimidating approach rapidly eroded and I was able to secure a fair settlement and get Josie her jewelry back.