Friday, June 22, 2007

Ingathering of Workers

The Kingdom of Pork franchise is perhaps the best example of a Tel Avivian establishment that caters to the new arrivals. This business evokes the zeitgeist of a disengaged nation that has turned abroad for cheap, expendable, and nonviolent labor. How kosher are these folks for the long term?

The busy shop has two locations in neighborhoods largely populated by foreign workers residing temporarily in Tel Aviv - Israel's turbo-charged urban entity that bustles with the sort of diversity found only in global cities. Since its genesis as the quintessential core of Old-New land over a century ago, Tel Aviv has pulsated with a continuously cosmopolitan energy - arising from a wide range of immigrants that have docked there.

Initially, the arrivals stepped onto the pacifying shores of Tel Aviv from the waters of the Mediterranean and from European jetplanes. Subsequently, like the rest of the state of Israel, the city matured with waves of olim from the Near East.
Nowadays, the absorption of ever more Jewish souls from around the world is complimented by an explosion in the number of non-Jewish foreign workers, whose ranks have swelled to approximately 50,000 in Tel Aviv (about 12% of the city's residents) and to 150,000 in the nation (about 2% of the country's residents). According to most estimates, approximately 2/3 of foreign workers in Israel are legal.

Many of these workers have arrived since 2000. As the neighborhoods of southern and eastern Tel Aviv resound with vernaculars originating in Manila and Accra, Bangkok and Mumbai, the cultural fabric of the nation remains in flux.


Foreign workers have filled a void in Israeli society. While Israel's agriculture and construction sectors traditionally employed Palestinian laborers, the number of work permits issued to workers from the West Bank and Gaza has decreased dramatically since the commencement of the Second Intifada in 2000. While over 150,000 Palestinian workers used to commute to jobs within Israel, the number has now decreased to a mere several thousand, depending on fluctuating permit and closure conditions.
Foreign workers have been present in Israel since the early 1980's, but they first began arriving in significant numbers with Yitzhak Rabin's government, as official policy advocated employing foreigners - rather than Palestinians - in many sectors that had traditionally been dominated by Arab labor.

"The use of foreign workers in Israel reveals a clear and open policy of substituting Palestinian workers with a workforce from overseas," according to the International Federation for Human Rights (IFHR), which co-authored a seminal 2003 study on migrant workers in Israel.

The report concluded: "The migrant labor situation in Israel resulted first from the further destabilization of Israeli-Palestinian relations, whereby passage between the [territories] and Israel was severely restricted and hence, Palestinian workers were unable to continue to travel to and work in Israel; and secondly, from the increase of the strong feeling of insecurity among Jewish Israelis vis-à-vis all Arabs, even [Arab] Israeli citizens – and particularly Palestinians from the [territories]."

The study states that wage levels for foreign workers average between 1/2 and 2/3 what a Palestinian would earn at the same job. In addition to being cheaper, migrant workers pose no security threat and do not have to pass through unpredictable checkpoints en route to work.

Udi Tzur, a construction manager from south Tel Aviv, emphasized the stark differences in his business between employing Palestinians and foreign workers from elsewhere, be they Asian or Eastern European. Palestinians inevitably spend their money in Israel and the territories, while immigrants from abroad send the vast majority of their income in the form of remittances to their countries of origin.
Tzur lamented the difficulty of obtaining work permits to employ cheap, foreign labor. Consequently, Tzur said that his firm had recommenced hiring Israelis after permits for his Chinese laborers had expired.

A non-profit resource for the omnipresent migrant workers who reside in Israel, Kav la'Oved pursues legal remedies for employer abuse and mistreatment. While the workers' countries of origin are diverse indeed, certain ethnic groups predominate in various sectors of the economy.

According to Kav La'Oved volunteer coordinator Anne Suciu, the government has issued 32,000 permits for agricultural work, predominantly for Thai workers.

Chinese and Romanian laborers largely fill the 32,000 construction slots that are available.

Many African migrant workers have found work in the food service and janitorial sectors.

Filipinos enjoy a significant monopoly in the 40,000 strong care-giving field. Of all the foreign workers, Filipino "metapletim" are especially omnipresent in contemporary Tel Aviv - as well as around the world.

Another 10,000 foreign workers are present in the industrial, service, and hospitality sectors.

Indians, Moldavians, Turks, and Nepalese make up most of the remainder of foreign workers who now reside in Israel. In sum, about 50% of the workers come from Asia, 45% from Eastern Europe, and 5% from Africa and Latin America.

These workers enjoy the status of being "permanently temporary," as part of a system in which Israel issues permits to employers, not workers. This arrangement serves to restrict foreign workers to specific labor markets and to minimize competition with Sabras.

Suciu is quick to point out the distinction between today's foreign workers - the vast majority of whom are here legally with government documentation - and the hordes of illegal workers who were deported in 2002 and 2003 in a series of major government operations.

Prior to these deportations, an estimated 13% of the Israeli workforce was composed of foreign workers, according to a study by the Euro-Mediterranean Human Rights Network.

IFHR, in conjunction with the Euro-Mediterranean Human Rights Network, reported that approximately 300,000 foreign workers lived in Israel in 2003 - 60 percent of them illegally. An estimated 150,000 were then deported by the Ministry of Immigration and Integration.

In general, many foreign workers start off with one-year permits and then become illegal as soon as their permits expire.

Caretaker Mary Gel, a recent arrival from the Philippines, extols the virtues of her temporary nation of residence. "I'm very adjusted to life in Israel," said Gel, who, like most other Filipinos currently living and working in Israel, intends to repatriate her country of origin after several years of sending remittances back to her family.

"I don't mind if Israel becomes less Jewish demographically, but I do believe that Israel should first focus on addressing poverty amongst Sabras," said Dita Daniel, a north Tel Aviv native. "The situation with poor immigrants is unfortunate. Yet, we should lift Israelis out of poverty before taking on so many impoverished workers."
A significant number of Israelis have employed an illegal worker at some point – either in housekeeping, home maintenance, or caretaking.

Anti and Abuse

In addition to concerns that migrant workers bring down the average wage level for Israelis, lingering unemployment has also prompted many Israelis to be skeptical of the presence of these workers.

Many rightwing Israelis oppose the presence of foreign workers due to the threat to native-born workers, while leftists often condemn rampant abuse both by the manpower companies that import foreign workers for a fee and by Israeli firms that employ them.

Deputy Governor of the Bank of Israel and renowned economist Zvi Eckstein formulated a controversial proposal that aims to minimize mistreatment of workers, root out corruption in labor recruitment, and ultimately phase out foreign workers in the very long term.

Smuggling and human trafficking are also two major concerns associated with migrant workers. The American designation of Israel as a top human trafficking transit point and destination looms on the political horizon.


Kav La’Oved’s Suciu elaborates on Israel's current attempts to limit the number of foreign workers admitted. She cites the fear on the part of many native-born Israelis that the foreign workers will overstay their welcome and attempt to raise their families in a country where educational and job opportunities are superior to those in their countries of birth.

"The main fear is that Israel will be invaded by non-Jews,” said Suciu, who cites the tremendous difficulty of naturalization for non-Jewish persons. She also argues that foreign workers are seen as a mere temporary solution to a dearth of native-born laborers willing to perform various types of unskilled labor.

In February 2007, Israeli Employment Service Director General Esther Dominisini told the Knesset Committee on Foreign Workers that the 200,000 unemployed Israelis could replace the country's foreign workers. She said that the government's gradual phase-out would begin with the construction and industry sectors.

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