The Israeli Supreme Court struck a rare blow for the rights of migrant workers when it ruled against the government's procedure for dealing with pregnant migrant workers. Women migrant workers who were lawfully present and gave birth had to choose between losing their documented status and returning to their home countries within three months of giving birth, or sending their babies away and continuing to work in Israel without them.
Migrant workers usually pay exorbitant charges to secure their placement abroad. In countries such as the Philippines and Indonesia, it is standard practice for recruiters and agents in the home and destination countries to demand sums equal to eight to ten months of a domestic worker's salary, despite the existence of legal limits on placement fees. Thus, if women migrant workers are forced to return home in their first year of placement, their families may see little or no benefit from their work.
More than six years ago, Israeli civil society organizations submitted a petition to the court challenging the constitutionality of the procedure in force. On April 13, Justice Ayala Procaccia delivered the court's verdict. She said:
"The procedure for the handling of a pregnant migrant worker violates the migrant worker's constitutional right to parenthood, afforded to her according to Israel's legal system. The procedure, taken simply, while not imposing on the worker to separate from her child after his birth, still forces upon her a choice between two evils: one, to leave Israel with her baby after the birth, and to miss an additional period of work in Israel allowed in her work permit, and by so to suffer severe economic hardship; and the second-to return to Israel to continue working without the child, leaving him to be cared for by others in a country overseas...It should be mentioned that the worker's arrival to Israel involves a significant financial investment, and her natural financial expectations are that this investment will be returned during the period of work in Israel, and that additionally, she will be able to secure other financial gains and support her family across the sea. Forcing a woman to choose between continued employment while realizing her legitimate financial expectations, and realizing her right to motherhood, cannot be reconciled with the normative and legal-constitutional perceptions of Israeli society. Constructing the alternatives in such a way is, first and foremost, a violation of the migrant worker's right to parenthood."
Among the organizations that submitted the petition was Kav La'Oved (otherwise known as "Workers' Hotline"), which began operating during the first intifada, in 1991, in support of Palestinian workers from the West Bank and Gaza Strip who went to work in Israel. The number of Palestinian workers was cut radically and since then most of Kav La'Oved's activity has been in support of the migrant workers from other parts of the world who were employed in their place.
A month and a half after the Supreme Court ruling in its favor, the Knesset passed a law overthrowing an earlier Kav La'oved success, wrote Hanny Ben-Israel on the organization's Web site ("Knesset passes pro-slavery bill," May 24, 2011).
Some states have regulations for migrant workers that tie their legal presence to employment by a specific employer. This prevents migrants from taking jobs that locals should have, they argue, and makes employers responsible for supervising the activities of the workers, including ensuring that they return home when their work permits expire. Migrant worker advocates counter that this kind of arrangement makes workers completely reliant on the goodwill of their employers, since they are unable to walk out on them without losing their status in the host country. They are thus vulnerable to many abuses, including physical and mental harm, overwork and salary deductions. In the Gulf countries, there's the "sponsorship" system, and Israel used to regulate migrant workers' employment in a similarly restrictive way. …