State Department Human Rights Report Assesses Foreign Workers' Status in Israel
Gee, John, Washington Report on Middle East Affairs
Very few Americans, and perhaps even fewer non-Americans, take the trouble to plough through the State Department's annual country reports on human rights practices. This is a pity, because, although sometimes vulnerable to charges of selectivity, a lot of work has gone in to them and they can provide a fairly good summary of the state of human rights within countries. Every year, in foreign ministries around the world, officials charged with defending their countries' conduct must get a sinking feeling as the report thuds on their desks or pops up on their computer monitors.
The 2002 report on Israel (only published at the end of March 2003), contains a section on the position of non-Palestinian foreign workers in Israel, the majority of whom, it notes, come from Eastern Europe and Southeast Asia and work in construction and agriculture. It highlights one particular abuse to which Israeli NGOs, particularly Kav La'Oved (Workers' Hotline) and the Hotline for Foreign Workers, have drawn attention:
"There have been growing allegations that foreign workers were being lured to Israel with the promise of jobs that in fact did not exist. Many foreign workers paid up to $10,000 to work in Israel. Work visas were tied to specific jobs, and quotas to bring in foreign workers were assigned by the government to employers. Technically, it is illegal for manpower companies who provide workers to an employer to receive payments from the worker, but NGOs and news articles alleged that the companies made thousands of dollars from each worker brought into the country, usually as a payment from the foreign partner. According to NGOs, there have been a significant number of cases where workers have been dismissed shortly after arriving in Israel. These NGOs alleged that the manpower companies worked with deportation authorities to deport the newly arrived workers, who were then replaced with new workers, earning the manpower companies more fees. NGOs argued that most workers expected to work for some time in Israel to recoup their initial payments; often they sought illegal employment for fear of returning home with large debts. According to NGOs, there have been cases where workers have killed themselves rather than face this prospect."
Although the report does not go into further details, Chinese workers seem to have been particularly susceptible to this form of abuse. Through their extended families and acquaintances, they are able to scrape together the money demanded by agents who paint a rosy picture of the earnings they can expect to make in Israel. Israeli agents work hand in glove with Chinese recruiters to fleece the workers, both taking a generous cut once the costs of airfare and more legitimate expenses are deducted. The workers normally do whatever they can to avoid deportation, as that would mean returning home with a millstone of debt still around their necks and nothing to show for their efforts. Some have appealed their deportation, while others have become illegal workers, forced into the worst paying jobs of all by their status.
Thais are also reported to have fallen victim to such practices. Many of those who go to Israel are recruited from villages to work in agriculture. In some cases, agents bumped up the fees charged to them from around $2,400 in 2001 to over $5,000 by mid-2002.
In many countries, national trade union federations would see it both as their duty and as advantageous to the home workforce to recruit migrant workers and campaign for their rights, but Histadrut, the Israeli labor federation maintains its tradition of showing only a token interest in the rights of non-Jewish workers. The State Department human rights report states:
"During the year there were attempts to include foreign workers within the national trade union Histadrut. News articles and some advocates stated that the union was interested only in collecting dues and had not acted to protect key union members who were singled out for deportation. …