The Plight of Israel’s Foreign Workers

Categories: Israel
       By Yigal Tzachor

The status of “foreign workers”—immigrants who come to Israel for employment opportunities and are not eligible to become citizens under the Law of Return—is determined by the Israeli government’s and the official authorities’ policies towards them. Like its predecessors, Olmert’s government has a dichotomous and contradictory policy towards these workers. On the one hand, the current government favors granting an increased number of work permits to the employment contactors who recruit foreign workers. On the other hand, the government supports the cruel deportations that separate families and expel young people from the only homes they know.

The policies of the current government and its predecessors embody several goals. First, the government aims to prevent foreign workers from staying indefinitely in Israel and, most of all, settling permanently in the country. This is one reason that only the workers themselves are welcomed. Not allowing spouses and dependents to follow the workers to Israel gives the workers a tremendous incentive to return to their country of origin. In addition, it reduces the cost of using foreign workers, because the Israeli government does not need to educate their children or provide other services to their dependents. However these benefits come at an enormous human cost because the policy deprives the workers of the basic human condition of living in a family unit.

Those who wish to ignore the cruelty of the current system say, with a dismissive wave of the hand, “This is how it is all over the world.” Unfortunately, these apologists aren’t far from the truth. There is no doubt that the phenomenon of both relying on foreign workers and separating them from their families is a global one. Israel has 240,0000 foreign workers, comprising 8.7% of the work force. Thus, Israel is in a “good position” (or not) in the middle of the international pack, between Luxembourg, where the foreign workers comprise 53.8% of the work force, and Spain, where they only comprise 1%. Many of these nations explicitly exclude spouses and children from accompanying the foreign worker.

In Israel, as in many countries, there are two populations of foreign workers: those with workers’ permits and those without. However, even those workers with permits and full recognition are not free of fear. At any time, the immigration bureau, or another governmental authority, can harass them. On relatively minor pretexts, they may be arrested, often in the middle of the night, and deported. For the person caught by this morass of laws and regulations governing their lives, it is Kafkaesque indeed. In sum, government policy treats foreign workers not as human beings worthy of rights and respect but as a convenient solution to a problem that has no foreseeable alternative solution. In the absence of foreign workers, , we would all feel an acute deficiency, including in some of the most sensitive parts of the economy such as eldercare. But as long as they are available to do the work, these same workers are seen as “expendable.”

Israelis support rights for foreign workers

A recent poll on attitudes towards of foreign workers conducted by the Berl Katzenelson Foundation shows that the Israeli public, in contrast to the official governmental policy, acknowledges the importance of the foreign workers both as employees, but also and mainly as human beings worthy of respect.

According to the poll, 70% of the public supports providing foreign workers with salaries and working conditions identical to those of domestic Israeli workers. In other words: 70% of Israelis wish to end the disgraceful situation in which foreign workers can be paid humiliatingly low salaries and subjected to terrible work conditions and even physical abuse by their employers.

The poll also reveals that almost half of Israelis would be willing to grant citizenship to foreign workers who served in the IDF. (Such service is currently not allowed, although other foreign nationals do sometimes serve.) 34% of those polled favored granting Israeli citizenship to children of foreign workers who were born in Israel.

One question stands as the crux of the issue: Do the foreign workers cause unemployment among Israelis? This is a difficult question to answer in a situation where the work in question is currently associated with marginal salaries and very poor working conditions. The poll showed that 49% of Israelis would not be willing to work at the jobs in which foreign workers are employed today.

Foreign workers have been a substantial part of the Israeli workforce since the second part of the 80’s, when they were recruited to replace Palestinian workers during the First Intifada. The foreign workers are now especially vital in the agricultural and eldercare sectors. Government decision makers need to recognize that there is no multitude of Israeli citizens eager to do these jobs. At present, there is no other option other than having foreign workers to do this work.

The chairman of the Adva center, Dr. Yossi Dahan, suggests several ways of improving the current situation. First, he champions the development of a formal agreement between Israel and the foreign workers’ countries of origin. Second, recognizing that many of the abuses foreign workers suffer have their origins in the system by which private intermediaries recruit and assign workers to employers, he advocated that the Israeli government step into the process. Another important way of improving the situation of foreign workers is through employment assistance centers, which would inform workers of their rights and facilitate the transition of workers from one job to another.

“ Kavod La’Oved”—Honoring the Worker—is a Jewish value with its origins in the Torah. It is time that the State of Israel makes this value part of official government policy towards all workers, domestic and foreign. As the poll makes clear, improving the situation for foreign workers has the support of the Israeli public. And as labor policy experts point out, there are several relatively simple ways to make quick and significant improvements in conditions for these workers. By improving the condition of the foreign worker, Israel would grant foreign workers (and perhaps us as well) the official title of Human Beings.                     

About Yigal Tzachor

Yigal Tzahor is Chairman of the World Labor Zionist Movement and Manager of the Ideological-Educational Center at the Berl Katzenelson Foundation in Israel.
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