Connect to share and comment

Opinion: Israel should respect rights of migrant workers

With foreign workers, Israel has its cake and eats it too

Child of Israeli migrant worker
A child of migrant workers waits at an improvised kindergarten on Aug. 17, 2010 in Tel Aviv's industrial zone in Israel. (Photo by Uriel Sinai/Getty Images)

The Israeli Interior Ministry says it is about to deport between 1,000 and 1,200 children of foreign workers. Prime Minister Netanyahu justified the deportations — which would include children who are not enrolled in school, do not speak fluent Hebrew, or are less than five years old, among others — as a deterrent to “illegal immigration that could flood the foundation of the Zionist state” with non-Jewish immigrants.

The prospect of deporting children outraged many Israelis, including some cabinet ministers, and set off protests in Tel Aviv. But the children’s plight is merely one consequence of Israel’s policies to limit migrant workers’ ability to claim residency rights. These harsh policies break families apart and leave workers vulnerable to exploitation and abuse.

Under Israeli regulations, migrant domestic, agricultural and industrial workers are “bound” to individual Israeli employers. If a worker’s employment ends for any reason — even if she quits because of abuse or non-payment of wages — her visa is cancelled, leaving her in Israel “illegally” and at risk of deportation.

Even when workers are abused, many cannot afford to quit. Most foreign workers incurred sizable debts to arrange their visas. Israeli law sets legal limits on these fees, but the law is rarely enforced. In reality, most migrant workers pay between $3,000 and $30,000 to agents in their home countries, who then split the fees with Israeli agencies, according to Israeli rights groups.

The majority of Israel’s estimated 200,000 foreign workers entered the country legally, according to rights groups, as Israel has sought to replace the Palestinian work force since the second intifada, or uprising, began in 2000.

As with the “sponsorship” or kifala system of many other Middle Eastern countries, Israeli policies make foreign workers extremely vulnerable to exploitation. In 2006, Israel’s Supreme Court found that the “binding” policy “has created quasi, modern-version slavery” where “the foreign worker had become a serf of this employer,” and gave the government six months to cancel it.

Four years on, it hasn’t.

Other policies, purportedly to discourage foreign workers from any activity that could strengthen their claims to Israeli residency, make it impossible for many foreign workers to have any form of family life.

An Interior Ministry regulation forbids migrant workers from entering Israel with “first-degree” (i.e. close) family members, like a spouse or a child, since that could indicate an intention to settle in the country. But the ministry interprets this regulation to apply even if the worker marries or has children in Israel. Virtually all children of migrant workers in Israel are present here illegally.

These policies have been merciless to families. In June, for example, immigration police arrested Charlene Ramos and Judser Maclenda, legal migrant workers, two days after their marriage. The police “allowed” the Filipino couple to choose which of them would be deported. Israeli non-profit groups appealed Ramos’ subsequent deportation order. A court decision is pending.