Migrant workers in Israel: A contemporary Form of Slavery

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An investigative mission report on the situation of migrant workers in Israel is released today. The report is the outcome of a joint investigative mission by the International Federation for Human Rights (FIDH) and the Euro-Mediterranean Human Rights Network (EMHRN).

Since the 1960s, the number of migrant workers throughout the world has increased dramatically and this form of labour is widely used. The situation in Israel is unique though since migrant workers are deliberately used to replace Palestinian workers and also because of the role that this policy plays in the Israeli-Palestinian conflict. Migrant workers have been employed in Israel since the 1980s and their number has steadily grown since then. Due to closures and security concerns associated with the first and above all the second Intifada, Israel has increasingly turned to migrant labour to replace the Palestinian workers who are prevented from entering Israel. Whereas around 115 000 Palestinians worked in Israel before September 2000, their number has dropped to a few thousands today.

The report draws attention to the alarming situation of 300 000 foreign workers - 60% of which are illegal. Many of the foreign workers start out as legal workers, but then lose their job or change employers. Since their work permit only allows them to work for one specific employer, they become illegal as a result. Illegal workers usually remain in Israel, because they cannot afford to go home. They are liable to arrest and detention at any moment, and ultimately to deportation. Because of the desperate situation of foreign workers -both legal and illegal, their fundamental rights are violated: no days off, low wages (half to two-third of the wage paid to Palestinian workers and even less compared to that of Israelis), poor working conditions, confiscation of passports, etc.

The legal or documented foreign workers are totally within the control of their Israeli employers, most of whom hold on to the workers’ passports illegally. If they complain, they are liable to dismissal, which instantly makes them illegal.

Half of the migrants are from Asia (China, Thailand, the Philippines), 45 % from Eastern European countries (mainly Romania and Moldova) and the rest from African and Latin American countries. Recruiting foreign workers is a very lucrative business. For example, the Chinese, mainly construction workers, have paid U.S.$ 6000-10 000 each to come to Israel - a sum which is divided between a Chinese agency (with Chinese Government connivance), the Israeli employers or their agency, and the Israeli Government (for visa fees etc.) and the travel company. The report notes that pressure groups in Israel and their contacts in Government and Parliament have been promoting this activity.

The FIDH and the EMNHR urge the Israeli government to comply with its obligation under international instruments in particular the International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights and International Labour Organisation Conventions and to Ratify relevant instruments and in particular the UN Convention on the Rights of all Migrant Workers and their families.

Further, the organisations call upon the Israeli authorities:
- To enforce compliance with its own law in relation to workers’ rights, trade union membership and the crime of retaining a foreign worker’s passport;
- To abolish the practice of requiring payments from workers for their contracts and tying workers to their employers;
- To better regulate the distribution of work permits and visas;
- To prosecute people involved in trafficking of people.

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