Al-Jazeera online – 2 March 2004
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 Aviv.
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.
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.
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 arrests.
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.
“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.
“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.
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.
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.”
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 government.
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?”
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.
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.”
Al-Jazeera online – 2 March 2004