Mar 10, 2014
The Other Israelis
Posted on Aug 7, 2011
TEL AVIV, Israel—After running up four flights in an unlit and poorly marked staircase in a drab concrete building in the heart of immigrant south Tel Aviv, Sheila begged her way through the front desk at a migrant worker advocacy group and arrived, short for breath, in the office of advocate Idit Lebovitch.
Her hands were clasped together in a quest for forgiveness and salvation.
Then she opened her mouth, and a stream of “I’m sorrys” and “thank yous” began tumbling out in her broken English as she explained her dilemma.
Sheila, a middle-aged Indian migrant worker in Israel, was in trouble. After paying an Indian middleman named “Richard” $9,000 cash for a visa to care for the elderly in Israel, she arrived in Tel Aviv with barely any knowledge of either Hebrew or English. She didn’t last long in her initial workplace because of that language barrier.
Six months and several jobs later, her most recent employer was refusing to pay the back wages she had earned. When Sheila quit, he threatened to have her deported, she said. If she didn’t find a new job soon—within 30 days—her visa would expire, putting her on the path to deportation and an uncertain future.
Sheila mortgaged her family’s house in India in order to take out the loan, and has paid only 5 percent back. “They’ll probably kill her, then her family, then … ” Lebovitch trailed off. “That’s what they do. It’s a black market.”
Lebovitch found a translator to help communicate with Sheila as tears streamed down her weary face, leathery with time and hardship. She eventually shuffled out of the office with a list of work agencies, her future far from certain.
Sheila found herself at the crux of sensitive issues for the state of Israel, where existential concerns about the Jewishness of the state clash against the invisible hand of globalization, which can provide caregivers from southeast Asia for far cheaper than even Palestinian labor. The result of Israel’s complicated relationship with migrant workers has created a strikingly exploitative system, according to NGOs.
Israel began importing workers beginning in the 1990s to fill jobs in agriculture, nursing and construction after the government choked off the flow of cheap Palestinian labor due to uprisings in the Occupied Territories.
Workers from that new wave of immigration consistently report paying thousands of U.S. dollars for the privilege of working inside the Jewish state, a practice that is illegal under Israeli law.
Migrant worker advocates charge that the state is profiting from the exploitation of migrants.
“The Israeli government is implementing what we call the revolving door policy,” said Sigal Rozen, public policy coordinator for the Hotline for Migrant Workers. “They keep on bringing new workers constantly, deporting those who know their rights and demand more money.”
But from the government’s point of view, migrant worker policy focuses on identity. Policy works to prevent migrants from integrating or establishing themselves into Israeli society. By not allowing migrants to establish families or bring other family members knocking, the revolving door protects the state’s Jewish identity. In fact, the government terms workers not as “migrants” but as “foreign workers.”
“The decisions of the Israeli government are connected to the Jewish character. We shouldn’t be ashamed of that. Israel is a Jewish country,” said Roi Lachmanovitch, spokesperson for Eli Yishai, Israel’s arch right-wing deputy prime minister and minister of internal affairs. “Israeli policy is not to increase foreign workers.”
Whether intentional or not, this “revolving door” has side effects that serve the interests of everyone but the migrants. Abuse and corruption are rampant as employers and recruitment agencies take advantage of workers’ fragile status.
Because recruitment agencies make money for each worker they import, there is no incentive to retain workers, advocates say. Agencies have an interest in bringing new workers rather than finding a new job for those already inside Israel, for even short-term unemployment quickly leads to deportation. The result is a new worker being imported who has to pay high fees to the agency, creating a high profit margin in a cash market that is near-impossible to monitor or regulate.
Five years ago, Nina Tabarrejo borrowed roughly $6,000 to pay a recruitment agency that helped her secure a visa and work in Israel. But once in Israel, this debt prevented her from leaving an abusive employer.
Officially, individuals who seek employment within Israel pay a state-capped brokerage fee of $980 to an agency that matches the worker to an employer. But according to Kav LaOved, each year incoming migrants report paying more for work permits. Today, workers pay $9,000 on average.
Visas tie workers to their employers, meaning that if a worker quits, he or she has 30 days to find work in the same industry or risk deportation.
Because of their debts, which normally take two to three years to repay, workers often avoid reporting abuses, human rights groups say.
“They’re afraid to leave,” said Dana Shaked, Kav LaOved’s spokesperson. “Because if they leave they won’t be able to send back money to their families and to the loans.”
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