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January 15, 2014 11:18 am

Who Wants Israeli Migrant Workers to Remain in Horrid Conditions?

avatar by David Bedein

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Opinion

African illegal immigrants protest in Israel. Photo: Screenshot.

Over the past two weeks, 10,000 Sudanese and Eritrean migrant workers have held high-profile protests in Israel. These workers are mistakenly described by the mainstream media as “asylum-seekers,” when, in fact, these people are job-seekers – ready to work under difficult conditions and with little remuneration.

Contractors from Israel’s hotels, restaurants, and kibbutzim lured these desperate people to work at 25% below the minimum wage, without medical or social benefits, and without any work permit whatsoever. Israeli contractors who employ these migrant workers are now hiring PR firms and community organizers to make their cheap laborers look like they are “victims of persecution.”

These contractors coordinate their campaign with “civil-liberties” groups that are funded through the New Israel Fund (NIF), whose common goal is to prevent them from being deported.

In that context, according to sources in the Eilat municipality, the mass arrival of migrant workers has thrown an estimated 4,000 Israeli workers in Eilat out of work. In a city of 49,000 people, that is a significant number.

The Mayor of Eilat complains that “orders from above” prevent the law from being enforced against hotels that are engaging the services of workers below minimum wage and without any benefits, which is a felony. Yet the Israeli police have not brought even one case against any hotel that illegally employs migrant workers.

Israel’s civil liberties organizations overlook the fact that Israeli contractors who exploit the migrant workers also hurt working people in Israel who are ready to work in minimum-wage jobs. A case in point that our family was witness to: When my younger son finished his mandatory army service a few years ago, he was ready to take any job, so long as he could earn some money before he decided what he was going to do with his life.

He went from work place to work place in Israel, shocked to hear that the wages offered to him were far below the minimum wage, with no social or medical benefits. What he heard from employers was that they “adjusted” their pay scale to “accommodate” cheap migrant workers, who take fees below the minimum wage, with no social or medical benefits.

One contractor did offer my son 17 shekels an hour, ten hours a day – 25 percent below the minimum wage – with no social or medical benefits, as required by law.

An illegal migrant worker took the job instead.

In that context, the Israel Hotel Owners Association in Eilat has been negotiating with Israeli government officials to allow their hotels to hold on to their 1,200 migrant workers. One of the executives of the Israel Hotel Association appealed to Israeli media outlets, saying that “they cannot manage” without their migrant workers, claiming that the loss of migrant workers would mean that there would be no one around to wash dishes in the hotels- as if no one washed hotel dishes before the migrant workers showed up.

I visited a makeshift village for migrant workers that was acquired by contractors for the migrant workers just north of the Eilat , where hundreds of them live in crowded conditions.

While there, I witnessed migrant workers listening to lessons about Israeli civics. A New Israel Fund group hired social workers to teach migrant workers how to become Israeli citizens, even though they do not qualify for Israeli citizenship under the “law of return” – Israel’s affirmative action law for Jewish immigrants to the Jewish national homeland.

However, if the migrant worker population continues to expand in Eilat – and there is every reason to expect that it will grow – migrant workers could form their own political party and influence policy decisions in a city whose total population is only 49,000.

At the dawn of 2014, the migrant worker population in Israel has surpassed 200,000 people. Across the globe, civil liberties organizations fight to put an end to the exploitation of migrant workers who are paid dirt wages with no benefits.

Yet in Israel today, contractors work with civil liberties organizations and their NIF sponsors to fight for migrant workers to remain in quasi-slave like conditions.

HOW MIGRANT WORKERS GOT TO ISRAEL: A CASE IN SDEROT, ONE MILE FROM THE GAZA BORDER

Three years ago, a young man in Sderot got a phone call from his landlord to vacate his rental apartment in Sderot, one mile from Gaza.

The landlord explained to his surprised tenant that a Bedouin tracker was bringing in ten Sudanese people to rent his Sderot flat.

I met that Bedouin, an Israeli citizen and IDF veteran, who spoke with me about his job, on the condition of anonymity.

He had been hired by a kibbutz to recruit ten Sudanese citizens and accompany them to the Kibbutz, where they were to work a 12-hour day, under minimum wage, with no social or medical benefits. It was also the job of the Bedouin recruiter to find his ten work clients a place to live, in nearby Sderot.

To carry out his task, the Bedouin tracker crossed the Israeli Negev desert into the Egyptian Sinai desert, where he met another Bedouin tracker who had been hired by the Sudanese emigrants to guide them on the long trek from Sudan into the Sinai, and then to meet a fellow Bedouin from Israel who would accompany the job seekers for the final miles of their arduous journey.

The Bedouin tracker whom I met performed his task for more than five years, until a little less than two years ago, when the fence between the Sinai and Israel was finally completed. But that Bedouin tracker had succeeded in “delivering” workers to hotels, restaurants, and kibbutzim and was well remunerated by all of these employers.

If there should be an Israel commission of inquiry into the import of illegal migrant workers into Israel, the question of “who profits” from their exploitation should be foremost in the minds of the judges.

News Investigations under the direction of David Bedein are privately sponsored through tax-deductible donations. For more information click here.

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