Magazine article Washington Report on Middle East Affairs

Study Finds Israel's Migrant Workers Endure "A Contemporary Form of Slavery"

Magazine article Washington Report on Middle East Affairs

Study Finds Israel's Migrant Workers Endure "A Contemporary Form of Slavery"

Article excerpt

Over 300,000 foreign migrants work in Israel. They now comprise 13 percent of its workforce-the highest proportion in any Western state apart from Switzerland. More than 200,000 of these migrant workers are now in Israel illegally.

Their situation is considered in a comprehensive report titled Migrant Workers in Israel, the contents of which justify its subtitle: "A Contemporary Form of Slavery".

The report, which received very little attention in the U.S. media, was released at the end of August. It was published by the EuroMediterranean Human Rights Network (EMHRN) and the Paris-based International Federation for Human Rights (FIDH). EMHRN links 60 human rights organizations in 20 countries in the Europe-Mediterranean region and FIDH is composed of 115 organizations based in 90 countries.

The report notes that there were relatively lew foreign workers in Israel until the first intifada, when frequent closures prevented Palestinians from the West Bank and Gaza Strip from traveling to work. Mass Soviet Jewish immigrations could not meet the demand for cheap labor, so Israelis who had formerly employed Palestinians sought temporary workers from overseas. The Ministry of Labor began issuing work permits valid for up to two years.

According to the report, the erosion of the Palestinians' position continued even during the relative calm immediately following the signing of the Oslo Agreement in 1993. Between 1992 and 1994, it notes, the number of work permits issued to Palestinians fell from 115,000 to 65,000: "The number of permits from the occupied territories dropped as a result of a separation policy, and not as a result of security measures." The numbers have been slashed further since, thus inflicting severe hardship on the workers' families.

Some supporters of the Palestinians used to argue that the workers of the West Bank and Gaza Strip provided Israel with such a cheap source of labor that they had become indispensable. It has long been evident, however, that the latter part of this argument was not true: when it suited Israeli governments over the past 15 years to cut down the number of Palestinian workers, they did so without hesitation. It turns out that another presumption was faulty as well: despite not needing to be flown to Israel or found accommodation, Palestinian workers were not cheaper than recruits from poor Asian countries. According to the FIDH-EMHRN report: "Looking at it crudely, from the employer's point of view, a Chinese costs $10 for 10 hours of work per day, while a Palestinian costs $30 for the same number of hours." Even though other foreign migrant workers normally are paid more, their average payment still is approximately half to two-thirds that of Palestinian laborers.

It is estimated that half the migrant workers come from Asia (China, Thailand and the Philippines), 45 percent from Eastern Europe (chiefly Romania and Moldova), and the remaining 5 percent from Africa and Latin America.

Those in the worst position are the Chinese who, the report says, "have all paid substantial sums-between $6,000 and $10,000 (several years' wages for a Chinese worker, which is often borrowed from friends and relatives) to the Chinese agency in order to work in Israel. The agency is licensed or controlled by the government-it was confirmed in the Knesset on 1 January 2002 that the Chinese government agency takes 25 percent of the worker's salary over two years as a commission; the agency and the Israeli agency pay for the visa fee and the transport and divide the profits between them."

The report refers to cases of Chinese workers being dumped at the roadside and told that there is no more work for them, and others threatened with deportation. In one case, reported in the April 1996 Kav La'Oved newsletter, a man due to be deported was held for 11 months in prison because he could not be sent home: he had legitimate grounds to fear that those from whom he had borrowed money to go to Israel would kill him when he returned and was unable to pay them off. …

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