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Israel’s Dirty Little Secret – Slavery

Israel’s Dirty Little Secret – Slavery

By Genevieve Cora Fraser

Three months ago, on Thursday, March 30, 2006, the Israeli High Court struck down Israel’s slavery law that had been on the books since 1952. According to the Israeli Human Rights organization Kav LaOved, “The view of migrant workers in Israel as the employers' property is reflected above all (in) the "binding arrangement" which makes the worker the employer's slave.”

Section 6 of the Entry to Israel Law, 1952, a.k.a. the Binding Agreement, grants the Interior Minister the power ‘to stipulate conditions in a visa or in a residence permit, compliance with which shall be a condition for the validity of the visit or the residence permit’. As applied by the Interior Ministry, “the work permit belongs not to the worker but to the employer; the worker is in fact bound or fettered to the specific employer whose name is stamped in his passport. Such binding to an employer is an imperative condition for the worker's legal status in Israel,” according to a Kav LaOved statement issued in 2004.

In 2004, the UN Special Rapporteur on human rights of migrant workers, Ms. Gabriela Rodriguez Pizarro, reported to the UN Commission on Human Rights that migrant workers complained about minimum wage violations, poor lodging conditions, use of violence by the employer and passport confiscation not properly acted on by the Police and the Labor Ministry’s enforcement division.

“Passport confiscation was punishable by a year's imprisonment; however, despite thousands of alleged complaints and 8,000 passports reported confiscated by the police, nobody has been convicted for this offence. Passports confiscated by the police were reportedly often returned to employers or to embassies, but not directly to the workers,” she stated.

Included in the UN report was a letter Pizarro had presented the year before concerning the 250,000 migrant workers in Israel who represented approximately 13 per cent of the Israeli labor force at the time. More than 80% of these workers received less than the legally required minimum wage. “Many of them worked very long hours, allegedly up to 250 hours per month, while the average working time for an Israeli worker was 152 hours per month,” she wrote.

“In spite of the fact that the law did not allow mediation fees to be imposed on migrant workers, the majority of them borrowed money to pay for mediation services, which could be as high as US$ 9,000, in order to obtain a legal work permit.…If the employer decided to terminate a worker's contract, the worker would lose his/her legal status immediately and would have to leave Israel.”

In 2004, Kav LaOved Director, Hannah Zohar reported that permits for employing foreign workers in construction, in fact, allowed for their exploitation. The workers were tied down, lied to and beaten to the point where they were turned into frightened animals. At that time an ex-minister, Knesset member Shlomo Benizry, had been investigated by the police “on suspicion of involvement in acceptance of a bribe, corruption and deceit, related to importation of migrant workers. A few other people, including Rabbi Elbaz, were also investigated with him,” she explained.

“The corruption, deceit and bribe are all connected to giving permits for employment of migrant workers in construction: faking permits, giving permits to those who are not in the construction business at all, or those who deal in migrant workers, or to a preferred contractor who paid a bribe for this purpose.”

“Why is there such a strong desire to obtain these permits? Because they are in fact permits for exploitation,” Zohar wrote. “The migrant worker gets tied to the permit holder without a chance for leaving for a fairer employer. That quickly leads to employment under conditions of slavery. For permission to work in these slavery conditions, the workers paid thousands of dollars in their home countries, after being promised legal work and high salaries. The Chinese, by the way, pay the largest sums of money, between $7,000 and $10,000 per person.”

By the end of 2001, tens of thousands of workers from China were brought into Israel in a massive airlift. “Some of them discovered that there is no work in Israel since the permits were given to contractors who declared that they had imaginary construction projects that had nothing to do with reality. Workers were forced to stand at crossroads and wait for another employer who would employ them in construction repairs. Some got arrested since they did not work for the contractor that had obtained the original permits on their behalf. Others never found out who the contractor was that brought them, since the passports containing the names of the commissioning employers were taken from them upon entry into Israel. When they approached the Ministry of Interior in order to request that the name of the permit owner be given to them by using the Ministry's database, they were arbitrarily refused,” according to the report filled by Director Zohar.

“They arrived at our offices, crushed and beaten by construction repair contractors who did not pay their salaries. When they returned to their employers to demand their salaries, they received checks that bounced, additional months of work without payment and promises that payment would be made the next day. We asked the Chinese workers for the names of their employers. They only knew their first names. The phone numbers that were given to them were mostly busy or disconnected. When we succeeded to get through, we received the response: ‘Who? Chang? Never heard of him.’ We were able to help only a few of them to obtain salaries owed to them,” she continued.

“The Immigration Police, who started operating at the beginning of 2003, turned the migrant workers into frightened animals. They were arrested at crossroads, at their employment locations and at the places where they lived and were beaten and humiliated for no reason. The most difficult phenomenon is that of migrant workers jumping from roofs in their attempts to run away from the police. They prefer to risk their lives over the fear of being returned to China before they are able to pay for the debts they had to take prior to their departure. It started with isolated cases but when hunting of migrant workers intensified, the number of jumpers grew. We were called in emergencies to hospitals in order to translate their complaints to the medical staff and we found many migrant workers with broken limbs, paralysis and permanent injuries,” Zohar stated.

Despite the best efforts of the United Nations and Israeli Human Rights organizations, in 2005, Kav LaOved once again filed a complaint regarding illegal mediation fees paid by Chinese workers. “We hereby inform you about a new government policy which violates the human rights of Chinese migrants in the construction sector in Israel,” the complaint began, then went on to state that 5000 new Chinese workers were about to arrive in Israel to work in the construction sector. Kav LaOved strongly objected to bringing workers into circumstances which constitute trafficking.

“These days each Chinese worker pays up to $12,000 commission fees to mediators and manpower agencies in order to receive a permit to work in Israel. In this way Israel is aiding the trafficking of human beings. Both Israeli law and an international treaty the country has signed prohibit charging workers a commission for finding a work place. Nevertheless, it is a known fact that all migrant workers who arrive to Israel pay thousands of dollars to mediation agencies. As this commission is illegal under Israeli law, agencies usually charge the fee in the country of origin and the fee is divided between the mediating agency in Israel and its representative agency in the country of origin. In some cases, the Israeli employer also receives a "cut" out of the sum.”

“The highest commission fees are charged in China, where the government allows for the charging of close to $4,000 per worker. This policy is approved by the Chinese authorities and was admitted on 1.6.2003 by the first secretary of the Chinese embassy in Israel at the Knesset's committee for migrant workers meeting.”

“Apparently the commissions charged in recent months are even higher. Since the implementation of the new employment scheme in the construction sector on May 1, 2005, a new employment scheme was implemented in the construction sector. The new scheme assigns workers to registered placement agencies, which then place the workers with contractors. Labour cost indeed increased significantly, due to the role of more mediators in this new employment scheme. As a result the illegal commissions, which Chinese migrant workers are forced to pay to manpower agencies and employers, increased dramatically and reached in some cases $12,000. This money is collected, of course, from the workers in China. Such offers increase employer motivation to get rid of the workers they employ, and bring in new workers from abroad.”

Kav LaOved’s formal complaint was submitted on October 10, 2005 to the legal departments of the Ministry of Interior and of the ministry of Industry, Trade, and Labor. Five months later the High Court acted.

Writing for Haaretz (3/30/06), correspondent Jonathan Lis reported that the High Court of Justice had “waived a requirement by immigration authorities of migrant workers to remain employed by a single employer in order to keep their work permits valid.” This ruling struck down Section 6 of the Entry to Israel Law, the Binding Agreement, the de facto slavery law that had been in effect for 54 years, since 1952. The court was acting on a petition submitted by several workers' and human rights groups, including Kav LaOved and the Association for Civil Rights in Israel, the Haaretz article explained.

The court gave the State six months to formulate new arrangements for work permits. “The government must formulate a new employment arrangement, which is balanced and fair towards migrant workers in the agriculture, care taking and industry sectors, which will not be based on the employee's attachment to a single employer and would refrain from linking the act of resignation with certain sanctions that include losing the legal status in Israel,” the verdict stated.

Perhaps fearing that the High Court ruling might truly be the beginning of the end to Israel’s state sponsored slavery, (which had bolstered Israel’s cash flow over the past five decades) last week Likud chairman, MK Benjamin “Bibi” Netanyahu stated that he prefers Palestinian workers over Asians.

According to the Ynet, Netanyahu told reporters that “he always preferred Palestinian workers, who at the end of the day return to their homes in the territories, over the Asians, who stay here and become a burden on Israel's social system.” He also dismissed hunger and lack of human rights as the motives for violence and terror, “but rather brainwashing and hatred for the West and its values,” Bibi insisted.

Meanwhile, Israeli Prime Minister Ehud Olmert has approved a shipment of weapons and ammunition to bolster security forces loyal to Palestinian President Mahmoud Abbas, “to strengthen the presidential guard so he (Abbas) can strengthen the forces against Hamas.”

“An aide to Olmert told Reuters around 375 assault rifles had arrived at the Israeli-controlled Allenby crossing between Jordan and the occupied West Bank, which was believed to be around half the agreed consignment.

Palestinian officials and Western diplomats have said Egypt and Jordan would provide weapons, ammunition and training for Abbas' presidential guard. Western powers want to ensure that Abbas emerges victorious in any power struggle with Hamas, which is formally committed to destroying Israel rather than creating a state alongside it.”

In other news, the bank accounts of Hamas ministers and legislators have been frozen by Palestinian banks in the West Bank and Gaza Strip at the request of Palestinian Authority chairman Mahmoud Abbas. And according to Haaretz, Senior Kadima lawmaker Tzachi Hanegbi, declared that "confrontation between Israel and Hamas is inevitable," and further warned that if the ruling Palestinian party returns to terrorism, Prime Minister Ismail Haniyeh and other Hamas leaders may be targeted for assassination.”

“Commenting on the violence, Hamas' Abu Zuhri accused the Fatah leadership of staging a coup against the Hamas government. ‘They can't wait to use political means to topple the government,’ he said. ‘Instead, they have resorted to acts of sabotage against government buildings and Hamas offices,’” Khaled Abu Toameh reported from Ramallah.

Why have I included the latest events involving the so-called Palestinian-Israeli Conflict into an article on Israel and its fondness for slavery? When Bibi Netanyahu talks, I listen, not because I am overwhelmed by his wisdom, but because he is usually trying to sell us something. Today he is selling Palestinian workers over Asians. Why?

The Israeli-American orchestrated blockades, non-stop assaults and economic boycott are meant to topple Hamas – whom they fear, not because of their violence – but because they demand Palestinian rights guaranteed under international law. In the meantime, Abbas is not only being armed to the hilt by Israel, he is threatening to dissolve the Hamas led government, according to latest reports.

A starved and subdued Palestinian population, minus a government, except for its all-powerful (dictator) president would be the perfect prescription for Israel’s economic woes. With no hope for survival other than by taking what Israel has to offer, their “benefactor” Israel might be convinced to allow Palestinian workers in – provided that their overseers – an Israeli armed Fatah can enforce the peace.

Of course, the alternative might be a Third Palestinian Intifada, but this time Israeli collaborators (who are busy identifying themselves) might be targeted along with the state of Israel. Perhaps Bibi, Olmert, Peretz, their friend and collaborator Abbas, and the rest of the boys should go back to the drawing room and rethink their options before all hell breaks loose. Unfortunately, all hell breaking loose seems to be the only option the failed Israeli-American leadership has to offer.


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