Opinion: Israel should respect rights of migrant workers

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.

A migrant worker who becomes pregnant faces an even more wrenching choice. The Interior Ministry will cancel her work visa when the baby is born and give her three months to leave the country. So she must decide whether to have an abortion, or have the baby and either face deportation or send the baby home. In fact, Israeli rights groups said that employers frequently fire pregnant migrant workers, contending they won’t be able to do their job.

One domestic caregiver from China told Human Rights Watch that she sent her baby boy back to China shortly after he was born in 2009 in an attempt to retain her work visa.
“It was the hardest thing I’ve ever had to do,” the 29 year old said. “But I thought it would be worth spending two years paying off my debt so that I could go home and have the financial means to care for him.”

Then the Interior Ministry revoked her work visa because of her continued relationship with her husband, a Chinese construction worker in Israel legally. So far, she remains in Israel.

Israel can lawfully control whom it allows into the country to work and restrict their ability to claim permanent residency, but its abusive policies are far from necessary to that end. Instead of deporting workers who quit, Israel should ensure migrant worker rights to seek a remedy against abusive employers.

Instead of deporting migrant workers who quit, Israel should ensure they have access to a remedy against abusive employers. Instead of deporting women for having children or the children themselves, Israel should prohibit employers from the discriminatory practice of firing pregnant women. Instead of penalizing marriage and childbirth, Israel should respect the right to a family. If Israel wants to continue to benefit from the labor of migrant workers, it should ensure their fundamental rights.

Bill Van Esveld is a Middle East researcher for Human Rights Watch, based in Jerusalem. Allie Chen is a student at Harvard University who researched migrant workers as an intern for Human Rights Watch.