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Eilat hotels ban hiring foreign workers in favor of new immigrants

December 2, 2007. Haaretz: Ruth Sinai,
Vacationers in Eilat who take the trouble to glance at the name tags of the staff waiting on them will notice the change that has swept through the personnel landscape at hotels in this resort town. John from Ghana has been replaced by Carlos from Chile; Sanjib from India has been replaced by Tatiana from Belarus. Migrant workers are out; new immigrants are in.

For years, Eilat hotels employed workers from Africa and Asia as dishwashers and cleaners. Some were legal, while others were illegal - with the authorities' tacit consent. Attempts were made periodically to restrict the number of migrant workers and encourage Israelis to replace them, but these campaigns met with limited success.

The change occurred this year thanks to a complete ban on employing foreigners at Eilat hotels.

Even before this, the Jewish Agency saw an opportunity here: Hotels need workers, and new immigrants need a job and lodging when they arrive in Israel. In recent years, nearly 50 delegations from the Jewish Agency and Israeli hotel chains Fattal and Isrotel visited the former Soviet countries, South America and France to recruit workers. JA envoys in each country located potential immigrants, who were invited to meet the hoteliers and hear about the jobs being offered.

"In meetings with immigrants it is important to match expectations so there are no surprises on either side," said Alex Shtendal, JA immigrant absorption director in Eilat.

The JA is not only a conduit for finding workers; it is also the address for their complaints, and ensures that hotels comply with labor laws.

"The government recognized in new immigrants a component in its policy to replace foreigners," Shtendal said. To encourage immigrants to come to Eilat, the government grants NIS 17,000 to anyone who perseveres for a year washing dishes or cleaning hotel rooms. The package includes lodging - for NIS 350 a month you get a room in the hotel's employee lodgings, shared with another worker.

Tatiana Berezovsky was an underemployed shoe engineer in Belarus. When the JA reps and hoteliers offered her a job, she did not hesitate. "I'm not spoiled. No problem cleaning bathrooms," she says.

Berezovsky immigrated with her daughter, now 13. She earns between NIS 4,000 and 5,000 a month, depending on how much overtime she puts in, and was recently chosen for a promotion track. Her daughter attends a boarding school in the center of Israel and visits twice a month.

Berezovsky's friend Larisa Andritzov was a teacher in Kazakhstan. Now she is a chambermaid. Her two children and parents live in Yokne'am, but she found no work there.

Maria Nuzdin used to work as a chambermaid, but is now a hostess in the dining room and lobby of a fancy hotel.

Carlos Mandel immigrated from Chile. First he worked as a waiter, and now manages a dining room at the same hotel.

Some 700 new immigrants work at Eilat hotels, where the Absorption Ministry plans soon to open ulpan Hebrew classes for them. The arrangement seems to be working out well for all concerned.
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