[Marxism] Israel jails foreign workers

usman x sandinista at shaw.ca
Tue Mar 2 15:15:55 MST 2004


Israel jails foreign workers
by Jonathan Cook
Thursday 19 February 2004 2:34 PM GMT

Israel's government has tried to reduce the number of migrant workers

At 10 one morning in December last year, the police burst into the bedroom
of Melinda Romechio, a 39-year-old Filipino maid employed by a close
relative of an Israeli cabinet minister.

She was arrested under caution that she would be jailed before her
deportation as an illegal foreign worker.

Romechio, who had been working legally for the family for seven years, knew
her 12-month permit had expired that same morning.

What she did not know was that the family employing her, rather than
renewing the permit as they had promised, had tipped off the police.

Romechio was owed more than $4000 in back pay and overtime that the family
wanted to avoid paying.

Last year, about 50,000 guest workers in Israel were jailed and summarily
deported, according to Kav La’Oved, a workers rights group based in Tel

Most arrived legally, after using their life savings to get a work permit,
but soon found themselves on the wrong side of the law.

The surge in arrests follows Prime Minister Ariel Sharon's decision in
August 2002 to create a task force known as the Immigration Authority. Its
job is to expel a substantial proportion of the estimated 300,000 foreigners
working in Israel.


"The fundamental rights of migrant workers - both legal and illegal - are
not respected"

International Federation for Human Rights 2003 report

A report published by the International Federation for Human Rights (FIDH)
late last year called the treatment of guest workers in Israel "a
contemporary form of slavery". The researchers were shocked to discover that
more than 65% of workers were defined by the authorities as illegal.

"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," says the report.

Although guest workers, like other workers, are supposed to enjoy protection
under Israeli law against exploitation, the government, the Immigration
Authority and the courts have been turning a blind eye to widespread abuse,
says Hana Zohar, director of Kav La'Oved.

"What's shocking about what happened to Melinda," she says, "is that when we
asked the courts to free her from prison the judge ruled that the
deportation should go ahead. He sided with the police and family and not
with Melinda.

Legal right

Foreign workers are used to lessen
dependence on Palestinian labour

"Although she has a legal right to the money she is owed, the courts are
enforcing her deportation as a priority. Cases like this are a message to
every unscrupulous employer in Israel that they can do what they like with a
foreign worker and the police and courts will let them get away with it."

A special police force with wide-ranging powers is charged with carrying out

Rights groups, including the Association for Civil Rights in Israel (ACRI)
and Physicians for Human Rights, have accused the immigration police of
waging a war against foreign workers.

There have been reports in the Israeli media of officers, as well as
employers, using violence against the workers.

"They are being treated like non-humans, like spare parts that can be
replaced as easily as a car wheel," says Adi Laxer, a lawyer who monitors
the treatment of migrants workers for Kav La'Oved.

Romechio, whose husband left her and her four children 12 years ago, paid an
Israeli manpower agency $2500 to find her work so that she could send money
home to support her children in the Philippines.

This month, the court gave her four weeks to pack her things and leave.

"They are being treated like non-humans, like spare parts that can be
replaced as easily as a car wheel"

Adi Laxer,
lawyer, Kav La'Oved

"I'm living at a friend's house until they deport me," she says. "I can't
afford food and I am banned from working again. I'm supposed to pay for my
flight home but I don't know how I will find the money.

Family breadwinner

"I haven't sent any money home to the children for two months. I don't know
what they are living on."

Guest workers started arriving in Israel in large numbers in the early
1990s, at the start of the Oslo peace process, after the then prime minister
Yitzhak Rabin barred most Palestinians from working inside Israel.

A general closure policy effectively sealed off the occupied territories.

Most of the workers come from Asia and Eastern Europe, particularly China,
Thailand and Romania, paying thousands of dollars to Israeli agencies for
the promise of a good job in agriculture, construction or care services.

But the dream has rapidly turned sour for many.

Chained employment

Israeli farmers protest in support
of allowing in foreign workers
to help collect agricultural products

Israel operates a harsh system of "chained employment" that gives almost
unfettered power to Israeli employers over foreign workers. As soon as a
worker's contract ends with his specified employer - for whatever reason -
he or she becomes "illegal".

"In Europe and America, ‘illegal worker’ refers to someone who enters the
country without a permit," Laxer said. "In Israel, on the other hand, a
worker can be arrested even if he has a valid work visa.

"It does not matter what the reason is for the contract with his employer
ending. Maybe the employer does not want to pay him, or the worker leaves
because he is being physically abused, or the conditions of employment are
not being honoured, or - in the case of carers - the employer has died. In
each case, he is defined as illegal and can be arrested."

According to one whistleblower from the interior ministry, Asaf Garty, whose
accusations were recently published in the Israeli newspaper Haaretz, the
immigration police are enforcing deportation against workers with valid
permits because they are under pressure to meet government-set quotas.

Fargot, 34, arrived from India in September after paying an agency to find
him work as a carer. He was posted to look after an elderly man in a moshav
near Jerusalem but after a month, the man was transferred to a hospital. The
agency gave Fargot another patient, a terminally ill woman from Acre.

On strike

Because of the surge in arrested foreign workers, a five-star hotel in
Nazareth has been hastily converted into a prison

Because of a strike by government officials, Fargot’s new permit had not
arrived by the time the woman died. When he made his way to the agency's
office in Haifa to seek new work, he was arrested. Despite having months
left on his work visa, police told him he was an illegal because his
employer was dead.

"I spent two weeks in jail," he said. "The family I had worked for tried to
intervene but the police would not listen. I was being put on a minibus with
three other inmates to take me to the airport for deportation when lawyers
managed to fax a court order preventing them."

Fargot was detained in the most unlikely circumstances: a five-star hotel in
Nazareth in northern Israel that, because of the surge in  arrested foreign
workers, has been hastily converted into a prison.

"The normal prisons are bursting at the seams with Palestinians who have
been arrested as terrorists by the army," said Raek Shbat, a former Israeli
soldier who manages the hotel-cum-prison.

"The rooms here had to be stripped of their imported furniture and in their
place were put standard-issue prison bunk beds. Bars have been fixed around
the balconies of the rooms too."

Human rights

More foreign workers are waiting
to leave or be deported

According to human rights groups, the mass deportation policy is being
implemented for two reasons.

First, pressure from powerful religious parties in Israel has been building
to expel the swelling number of foreign workers because they are seen to
undermine the Jewish character of the state. Guest workers now comprise more
than 5% of the population and many are settling down and want to assimilate.

Ordinary Israelis, who feel threatened by the growing number of non-Jews
(which includes Israeli Arabs and Russian Christians married to Jews who
migrated from the Soviet Union), are supporting the harsh policy of the

One Israeli company employing thousands of Chinese workers made headlines
recently when it banned them from having sex with Israelis.

Secondly, the government claims that with unemployment hovering at the 12%
mark in an economy hit by deep recession, the guest workers are stealing
jobs from Israelis.

Zohar of Kav La’Oved, like many other observers, is unconvinced. "If that
were the case, why are the Israeli authorities still issuing so many work
permits abroad? Why not employ the illegal workers already here rather than
spend so much money jailing them?"

Dirty work

In fact, she says, the Israeli authorities want guest workers because they
do jobs Israelis refuse to do and because they do them very cheaply.

"Israel doesn't even try to conceal how corrupt the whole business is"

Adi Laxer,
lawyer, Kav La'Oved

Zohar says the deportations should be seen as a way to guarantee cheap,
exploitative wages. "Unlike in other countries, illegal workers here
actually earn more not less than their legal counterparts. The legal workers
are tied to an employer however badly he treats them and however poorly he
pays. An illegal worker, on the other hand, can search around for much
better pay and conditions."

Laxer adds that little is likely to change because powerful business and
political interests support the current system.

"Israel doesn't even try to conceal how corrupt the whole business is.

Several government ministers are closely tied to the agencies that charge
new foreigners to come to work here, so they have every interest in making
sure that the workers already here are deported."

"The obstacles are ideological rather than political. It is the expression
of patriarchal thought that permeates everything, that makes for a one-sided
vision of society ... Not only is there tremendous ignorance of a feminist
agenda, but when it is addressed it is addressed paternalistically,
condescendingly, in welfare terms. We are lacking in
profound and serious reflection on the subject." -Sofia Montenegro,

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