October 1998 Volume 5 Number 10
Israel: Foreign Workers
Eric Cohen of Hebrew University estimated that there were 95,000 illegal foreign workers in Israel in 1996. The current estimate of the Labor Ministry is 75,000 legal workers, down 30 percent from two years ago, and 90,000 illegals.
Most foreign workers are in construction, agriculture and health care for the elderly (geriatric services). Israeli computer companies tried recently and failed to obtain permission to import Indian programmers. Instead, the Indian programmers remain in India, working with Israeli firms via modem.
Cohen concluded that instead of foreign "settlers," Israel has "permanently temporary" foreign workers. Israel issues permits to employers, not workers, in an effort to restrict foreign workers to particular labor markets and minimize competition with Israeli workers. Foreign workers give their passports to employers for the duration of their stay; if they leave the employer before the end of the contract, they are immediately rendered "illegal" and subject to expulsion.
Worker advocates believe that this system leads to exploitation. One group concluded that 40 percent of foreign workers did not receive the pay they are entitled to, including overtime, and 20 percent did not receive any pay for the last month of employment. About 90 percent of migrants do not receive benefits to which they are entitled to under Israeli law, such as vacation pay and a clothing allowance.
Some employers have hired "bounty hunters" to track down runaway foreign workers. In Romania, some employment agencies make workers mortgage their homes before they leave for Israel; if the worker absconds, the house in Romania is sold to pay the bond.
Palestine. After the peace accord, it was hoped that the Gaza strip would become prosperous. However, there are still very few jobs in Gaza, and about 500,000 Palestinian workers, half from Gaza, cross the border to Israel every day for work. Border closures due to terrorism led Israeli employers to find new sources of workers.
The free-trade zone envisioned by the Oslo accord has been stifled by security checks. Israel does not charge duty on products from Gaza or the West Bank, but security checks result in delays and higher transportation costs.
On September 8, former Israeli prime minister Shimon Peres called for the establishment of a common market between Europe, the Middle East and northern Africa to solve the problem of immigration. At a speech in Spain, Peres said that NAFTA had stemmed the influx of Mexican immigrants into the US.
Lee Hockstader, "For Gaza, Peace Just Means More Poverty," Washington Post, September 16, 1998. "Peres pleads for common market to stem immigration," Deutsche Presse-Agentur, September 8, 1998. Abraham Rabinovish, "Israel's mix of need, greed and conscience," Jerusalem Post, August 21, 1998.