The establishment of the State of Israel in 1948 was based on noble ideas of the Declaration of Independence whereby equality of all was stated clearly. Israel declared that she would uphold human rights and principles of democracy. There would be no discrimination based on colour, creed or religion. The Jewish People had suffered persecution in the Diaspora for centuries. This reached its culmination in Nazi Germany when 6 million were murdered because they were Jews. Israel rose from the ashes of the Holocaust when the majority of the members of the newly established UN voted in favour of partition of the British Mandate of Palestine. The Jews found a new home, free from persecution that welcomed every Jew who wished to make Israel his or her home no matter from where he or she came. One would expect that Israel would be a special country upholding these principles because of the tragic history of the Jewish People. Is this true today?
Israel has fought many wars for her survival and this has taken its toll in lives and in outlook. One would expect more respect for the rule of law and more sensitivity towards those who are different, including migrant workers, Arab Israelis, innocent Palestinians and Israelis who are poor and work for minimum wages with no hope for their future or that of their children.
Many migrant workers go to Israel because future contractors promised them a job, and discover upon arrival that no such job exists. Workers who do not have any work or identification documents usually remain in Israel, because they cannot afford to go home. Such people are liable to arrest and detention at any moment, and ultimately to deportation. Because of their situation, the fundamental rights of migrant workers – both legal and illegal - are not respected. They receive no days off (or fewer than agreed in the contract), low wages, poor working conditions and are liable to confiscation of passports. The migrant workers are mainly from the Philippines, Thailand, China and other Asian countries, Romania and other Eastern European countries, and a number of African and Latin American countries.
The business of recruiting foreign workers is very lucrative for the employers. Employers’ pressure groups in Israel and their contacts in government and Parliament have been promoting the recruitment of migrant workers. The Chinese migrants, mainly construction workers, are often the worst affected. They have paid U.S. $ 6,000-10,000 each to come to Israel. This sum is divided between the Chinese Government, the Israeli employers or their agency, the Israeli Government (for visa and other fees) and travel costs. Because of the downturn in economic growth in Israel, particularly in the construction industry, many Chinese workers arrive to find there is no work. Many end upon the street, jobless, and illegally resident in Israel.
Although the Israeli Government insisted it has stopped issuing visas for Chinese construction workers, a number of Israeli employers were still holding a batch of visas valid for the next few months, and were continuing to recruit Chinese workers, because they are reluctant to relinquish such a lucrative business. The situation is similar for migrant workers in the areas of agriculture, catering and domestic help. Much of the work now done by migrant workers used to be done by Palestinians from the Occupied Palestinian Territories (O.T.), and by Palestinian Israeli citizens. However, due to the closures of the crossing points from the O.T. into Israel, most Palestinians can no longer travel to and work in Israel, and some Palestinian Israeli citizens have lost their jobs following the Intifada; this situation has been worsened by Israel’s economic decline and the resulting polarization of society.
Meanwhile the legal or documented migrant workers are under the total control of their Israeli employers, most of who hold on to the workers’ passports illegally. If the workers complain, they are liable to be dismissed, in which case they immediately lose their work permits and become illegal residents. The police have begun a campaign rewarding people who inform the police of illegal foreign workers. A new police unit has been set up to deal with the problem in a more sympathetic manner, but it is too early to determine if it will work. (See MIGRANT WORKERS IN ISRAEL- A Contemporary Form of Slavery - Executive Summary p7 and 8).
A no less macabre situation exists for those poor Israelis - Jews as well as Arabs who work for contractors of all kinds and sorts. Various contractors who employ cleaners for public institutions such as hospitals, businesses and day clinics use a well-known source of contractual labour. “Contracted labour” in Israel is a euphemism for almost slavery. Here the worker earns minimum wage with no chance of promotion or rises in salary apart from cost of living rises that are declared by law. These employees have no recourse to basic employment rights. If they take a lunch break, the time that they take is deducted from their salaries, which decreases the pittance that they earn even more. They have no paid annual leave benefits nor do they have maternal or sick leave. The days that the worker is absent for whatever reason is deducted from his salary. They do not have pension schemes or any form of employment benefits apart from the miserable pittance that National Insurance (Bituach Leumi) pays them on their retirement. Many retire because of ill health and the contractor bosses turf them out without any benefits, as there is none. I once asked a contracted laborer if she has address when she feels that she has been exploited. The answer I received was in the negative. She does not even know who her employer is. Her miserable paycheck does not give any hint by whom she is paid and to whom she is responsible. The Knesset passed many laws in the past to protect the worker but somehow contracted labour fell between the chairs. The Israel Labour Federation overlooks the contracted worker.
The situation with legal Palestinian workers in Israel is no better. Israel embarks on an exercise of public relations to highlight her problems with the Palestinians and Palestinian terror, but in the social field of employment, the situation is drawing close to being inhuman! The Histadrut – the Israeli Labour Federation – does not protect the rights of contracted workers. The Histadrut is impotent and ineffectual and is only affective in declaring strikes of workers who are members of strong unions such as the Airports and Harbour Workers Union, Internal ministries and other strong public sectors that are Histadrut affiliated. The law enforcement agencies have forgotten the contract worker. The contracted laborers of the Dead Sea Works suffer a similar fate. Justice for the workers is limited to those represented by strong unions.
If there is a parallel between Israel and apartheid South Africa of the past, this is it and not the Security Fence. Black contracted labourers suffered a similar fate in apartheid South Africa.