Foreign workers market spinning out of control
The arrest this week of four individuals suspected of fraudulently obtaining work permits for foreign workers is closely linked to the recent wave of imprisonments and deportations of illegal residents and yesterday's workers protest on the top of a crane.
Each incident tells a different side of the story that has come to be known as "Israel's revolving door."
In the early 1990s the security situation led to repeated closures of the West Bank and Gaza, which made it much more difficult for employers to retain Palestinian workers. The Israeli government responded to industry demands for labor by opening the door for foreign nationals to fill jobs in agriculture and construction that Israelis were unwilling or unable to do.
Today, Israel is home to tens of thousands of migrant workers who make up a significant portion of those employed in agriculture and building, in addition to care for the elderly, a field that also exploded due to changes in family dynamics and the fact that older people are living longer
The cycle starts when the foreign national requests a license to come work in Israel, while still residing in his or her country of origin. They sign up their with employment agencies, run either by Israelis or by local agents.
The employment agencies are in charge of bringing the workers to Israel and finding them jobs and, in some cases, they also provide rudimentary training in basic language skills and work methods.
For their services, and because the number of applicants far outweigh the number of available positions, the employment agencies receive payment from the workers. The rate of payment changes from country to country and sector to sector, but according to Shevy Korzen, executive director of the Hotline for Migrant Workers, some workers pay fees of up to $25,000.
Foreign nationals who come to work in Israel are issued a B-1 visa good for 54 months, which allows them to work in a particular sector.
The government currently issues visas for work in agriculture, ethnic restaurants and care-giving, as well as for people who are designated as specialists in their specific fields.
Employers who wish to hire foreign workers are required to apply for a permit from the Industry, Trade and Labor Ministry. The permits are issued for a specific sector of employment, according to a quota set by the government every year.
Human rights advocates argue that the government, by neglecting to regulate the employment agencies properly, has caused a situation where there is more incentive for both the manpower agency and the employer to request to have a new worker brought in, rather than to place or hire someone who's already here.
This is because every new foreigner will pay the agency another fee, while the agency will get nothing from a "reassigned" worker who is already here.
"Try calling up one of the employment agencies, they'll tell you that there are no workers available and that you if want a foreign worker, you need to import him or her from abroad," said Korzen.
As Monday's arrests indicate, this poses a temptation that is too great for some to resist.
Theoretically, the number of workers should correspond closely to the number of permits issued by the government, but in reality, the number of workers is much higher, with additional people arriving daily.
In actuality, there are many more migrant workers in the country than are needed, and people who lose their jobs, for whatever reason, find it increasingly difficult to find employment.
In the care-giving sector, for example, if employment stops because the employer died, there is no system in place to help the worker find a new job, no matter how much time remains until their visa expires. At the beginning of the year, the Interior Ministry opened an electronic database of care-givers through which workers could sign up to be notified of new openings, but it was inexplicably closed after only a few weeks.
According to Interior Ministry regulations, a migrant worker can lose his status if three months go by without finding work. This makes him as "illegal" as someone who has been working here with no valid visa at all.
"What the government has done is make criminals out of people it allowed to come in legally. When the Interior Ministry talks about people who have lost their legal status, often they have lost it because of the ministry's own regulations, " said Oded Feller, a lawyer from the Association for Civil Rights in Israel, at a recent lecture in Tel Aviv.
"It should be clear to any reasonable person that the companies prefer to do anything so that a foreign worker will find his or her way out of the country, so that they will be able to bring a new person in their place, with all the accompanying phenomenon, which are unbecoming in general and unbecoming to the people of the Book and the light to the nations in particular," said Meir Spiegler from the Interior Ministry's Population Administration, during a Knesset Committee on Foreign Workers meeting last month.
"We are investigating the operations of all of the [employment] agencies and examining how many of their workers did not receive new placements and whether this is something that repeats itself. If we find proof of wrongdoing we take away their license and permits."
Spiegler said that 17 companies were closed down in the last year and that there are currently 133 operating agencies, of which 22 are under investigation.
The government has also taken steps to better regulate the import of foreign workers, especially in the construction sector, and in 2005 passed a law that made it mandatory to employ workers through a network of around 40 corporations made up of contractors and building companies. In this way, they hope to improve the employment options of foreign workers and reduce their dependence on the employment agencies.
Moreover, there is currently a policy of "closed skies" in the construction sector, that is, the government is no longer issuing work visas for that field.
In the care-giving sector on the other hand, things are wide open. There is no limit to the number of migrants allowed in and as a result, many of the workers either find themselves clinging to jobs they dare not leave, no matter what the conditions are, or become criminals by working out of their field or being unemployed.
More than 20,000 people are expected to be deported by the end of the year, some of them children who were born here to migrant workers and have known no other home. If things remain as they are, every person who leaves means another potential bundle of money going into the pocket of some manpower agency.
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