The Question of Israel's Foreign Workers

By Sanders, Ralph | Midstream, Summer 2011 | Go to article overview

The Question of Israel's Foreign Workers


Sanders, Ralph, Midstream


Today people interested in Israel are mostly concerned with the political struggle taking place between Israel and Muslim states and move-menu. Another phenomenon also merits attention--the foreign workers in Israel. As fewer and fewer Israelis earn their living by performing labor-intensive jobs such as washing dishes, cleaning houses and offices, attending the sick and elderly, doing laundry, constructing buildings and other infrastructure projects, and tending crops, Israel has resorted to importing outside laborers. Israel calls them "foreign workers." This title leaves little room for misunderstanding. These workers are apart from Israelis. Other countries use more pleasing words like "migrant workers" and "guest workers."

Jews have long been admonished to treat foreign workers well. The Hebrew Bible implores: 'You shall not oppress a poor and needy hired worker from your brothers or from your sojourners who are in your land within your gates." (Deuteronomy 24:14).

Israelis increasingly have become entrepreneurs, managers, professionals, and skilled workers in a largely capitalistic society. The technology revolution that took place in the 1970s and 1980s created a large pool of enterprises utilizing the most advanced sciences and technologies. Israel's highly regarded advanced educational system, including a number of first-class universities, has graduated a pool of qualified Israelis to fill these jobs.

Most foreign workers live satisfactory lives (especially when compared to what they face in their home countries). Foreign workers in Israel have social and other rights meant to furnish them with beneficial and non-exploitive labor conditions. Questions arise as to how Israel implements those rights. Still, critics can point to cases where workers endure harsh, abusive, and illegal conditions. As in all nations, some Israelis are greedy and dishonest. Published stories about Israel tend to high-fight the negative aspects of its labor situation.

Consequently, readers can mistakenly conclude that all of Israel's foreign workers live terrible lives. These critics fail to notice that foreign workers are not rushing home in large numbers. There must be some satisfactory living and working conditions (even for illegals). In all honesty, some aspects of the immigration system make it difficult for laborers to return home even if they so desire. Nonetheless, workers in Israel generally remain there for the duration of their contracts or even longer while others clamor to come to Israel in order to enjoy what Israel has to offer.

TRENDS:

Little doubt exists that Arab terrorism, especially during the Second Intifada (an uprising by Palestinians), led Israel to replace Palestinian workers from the West Bank and Gaza with other laborers. For most of Israel's existence, Palestinians entered the country with little interference. They worked at low-paying (by Israeli standards), physically demanding jobs, especially those jobs that Israelis refused to perform. Some observers noted that in 1987 as many as 110,000 Arab workers would cross the "green line" on any given day.

In 1998, well over one-third of the Palestinian work force retied for their livelihood on jobs in Israel. When the Israelis discovered that they could not distinguish a Palestinian worker from a Palestinian terrorist, they barred most Palestinians from jobs in Israel.

The flow of overseas workers into Israel began with little advance planning. No comprehensive plan existed for managing them. Many of the migrants come from countries much worse off economically than Israel. In recent years some 300,000 foreign workers live in Israel, about 60 percent illegally. About 13 percent of Israel's labor force are foreign workers, half from Asia (China, Thailand, and the Philippines), almost half from Eastern Europe (Romania and Moldova), and the rest from Africa and Latin America. Of those holding permits, 32,000 work in construction, 40,000 as caregivers to the disabled or elderly, 32,000 in agriculture, 5,000 in industry, and the rest in hotels. …

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