September 1996 Volume 3 Number 9
Israel and Jordan Debate Foreign Workers
The new Israeli government of Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu is attempting to reverse Israel's growing reliance on foreign workers. A committee recommended in mid-August that the number of legal work permits be reduced from 103,000 to 83,000, and that the estimated 50,000 to 150,000 foreigners working with expired tourist permits be apprehended and deported.
At its weekly meeting on August 23, the Israeli Cabinet considered a proposal by the Labor and Welfare Minister to establish an Authority for Foreign Workers that would have the responsibility of detecting and expelling 1,000 illegal foreign workers each month. At this rate, authorities estimate that it would take more than eight years to expel all of the 100,000 foreigners working in Israel without a permit.
On July 12, the Jerusalem Post ran a major story headlined "importing trouble." Some Israelis warn that there is nothing more permanent than temporary workers--importing foreign workers may not be reversible, as Israeli youth abandon farm, construction, and service jobs. The United Torah Judaism Party, part of the coalition government, is pushing for the expulsion of foreign workers.
The US is pressuring Israel to expel illegal aliens to make room for Palestinians who need jobs. After the closure of the West Bank and Gaza in February 1996, Israel prevented 60,000 Palestinians from working in the country, and granted work permits to an additional 50,000 foreign workers. Some 40,000 Palestinians are currently authorized to work in Israel, down from a peak 180,000 in 1989.
The Palestinian Authority estimates that each day that Palestinians cannot work in Israel, the West Bank and Gaza lose $6 million--the 60,000 Palestinians employed in Israel have a weekly payroll of about $15 million. Palestinians say that there were 180,000 commuters to Israel in January 1995, before the closures began, 100,000 legal workers, and the rest illegal workers.
The unemployment rate is 65 percent in the Gaza Strip, and 45 percent in the West Bank.
In the mid-1980s, there were few foreign workers (excluding Palestinians) in Israel, in 1990, 16,000, and in 1996, there are 200,000 to 250,000, half illegal, and 70 percent in the Tel Aviv area. In south Tel Aviv, there are 30,000 to 40,000 construction workers from Eastern Europe and Turkey, and they have average earnings of about $800 per month.
Many of the foreign workers are concentrated in south Tel Aviv, where overcrowding is common, and both beer halls and brothels have emerged to serve them. According to one estimate, 60,000 of Tel Aviv's 440,000 residents are foreigners (14 percent).
Israel's state comptroller, Miriam Ben-Porat, asserted that "The practice of using foreign workers delays technological development and market optimization, hurts the employment potential of Israelis seeking work, reduces the need for Israelis to enter into the fields that the foreign workers enter, and creates a dependence on cheap labor and is bound to create social problems."
As the number of foreign workers increases, so do reports of legal migrant workers switching from the employer who brought them to Israel to jobs that pay more, and thus a growing number of illegal workers. In mid-August, it was reported that there were at least 100,000 illegal foreign workers in Israel, and the government announced that it was establishing a detention center for those apprehended.
There are an estimated 17,500 Thai workers employed on one-year contracts in Israeli agriculture--a Thai worker was killed in July 1996 by a Palestinian allegedly upset about being displaced. Most of the Thai workers live in mobile homes, and at least $700 is transferred directly by Israeli farmers to their Thai workers' accounts at the Bank of Bangkok.
Foreigners are using a number of ruses to enter Israel in search of work. One group of Nigerians tried to enter Israel with forged papers indicating that they were UN peacekeeping troops.
Under one proposed private employer agreement with the government of Kenya, for example, up to 15,000 Kenyan workers could come to Israel but, if the Kenyan worker abandons his job, he will forfeit a $3,000 bond. If the worker cannot be found, then the Kenyan government will collect the $3,000 from his family in Kenya.
Reports of foreign worker abuse are increasing. A television report in mid-August told of six Turkish workers who were locked in a shack on an Israeli farm by the employer. Many foreign workers live in squalid housing, which one police officer likened to a ghetto. City authorities, especially in Tel Aviv, complain about the social, health and crime problems created by the foreign workers.
There are 300,000 Arab and other foreign workers in Jordan, up from 250,000 from 1995, and 10 percent are unemployed. On August 3, the government announced plans to tighten controls on foreign workers in the country. Under the plan, the passports of foreign workers would be stamped with the name of the foreigner's Jordanian employer and the duration of the work permit.
Employers and landlords are required to register foreigners at the local police station within 48 hours of the foreigners' arrival, or risk fines of 50-100 dinars ($70-$140) per day.
Work permit fees are being raised from 300 dinars or $520 to 1,200 dinars or $1,680 to discourage foreign workers from entering Jordan. The new fees represent an increase of 10 to 25 percent for Arab laborers in agriculture, 100 to 150 percent for other Arab laborers, and 300 to 400 percent for non-Arab foreign workers.
The purpose of the new regulations and fees is to "halt the flow of foreign labor to create employment opportunities for Jordanian workers." Unemployment is officially 15 percent, and informally believed to be at least 30 percent. About 135,000 persons, 36 percent of all Jordanians, are employed by the government.
Jordan plans to introduce a minimum wage, which will be at least the poverty line, which was 132 dinars ($185) per month in 1994.
Many Jordanians work abroad. In 1990, Saudi Arabia expelled Jordanian diplomats and migrant workers after Jordan refused to condemn Iraq's invasion of Kuwait.
Jeffery Heller, "Israeli Minister Targets Illegal Foreign Workers," Reuters, August 23, 1996. Neil MacFarquhar, " Israel's New Poor: Foreign Laborers," New York Times, August 19, 1996. "Israel to set up detention center for illegal workers," Agence France Presse, August 13, 1996. "Jordan to raise work-permit fees for foreign workers," Xinhua News Agency, August 7, 1996. Allison Kaplan Sommer, "Importing Trouble," Jerusalem Post, July 12, 1996.