News/Israel: Foreign workers edging in on Israeli jobs

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Subject: News/Israel: Foreign workers edging in on Israeli jobs
From: Melanie Orhant (morhant@igc.org)
Date: Fri Mar 24 2000 - 13:01:06 EST


Foreign workers edging in on Israeli jobs
By Michele Gershberg

TEL AVIV, Feb 28 (Reuters) -- It has been two years since Vasily visited
his home and family in Romania and he cannot say when he will return.

An illegal foreign worker, Vasily is one of roughly 150,000 foreigners,
half of them legal, lured to Israel by higher wages.

Originally brought to Israel to replace Palestinian labourers when tensions
ran high in the early 1990s, foreign workers are beginning to encroach on
Israeli jobs, employment officials and social workers say.

As national unemployment nears nine percent of the workforce, or some
200,000 people, the government is taking notice.

Vasily, 47, says he is content earning 10 times the going salary in
construction offered in his native country.

But with an unscrupulous former employer refusing to return his passport,
it could be many months before he will be able to visit his two daughters,
both university students in Romania.

Meanwhile, Andre, 38, an Armenian Jewish emigre and welder by trade, shows
up for another day of queuing at the state employment bureau in Tel Aviv.

``I don't know whether they will find me a job,'' he said, adding that his
Hebrew is not good enough for him to get certified in his profession.

FOREIGNERS TAKE LOCAL JOBS

Both men must bear up under unregulated employment practices that push
legal foreign workers to seek out a black market for labour and force out
unskilled Israeli employees.

In Romania, Vasily was a construction manager, earning no more than $120 a
month. Higher wages in Israel beckoned him and his wife to the Middle East.

But when his legal Israeli employer deducted nearly 50 percent from his
monthly wages of some $850, largely for unexplained charges, Vasily and his
co-workers sought new jobs.

Now he earns $1,400 a month, but risks deportation and receives almost no
social benefits, particularly health care.

``What drives me is the need to solve economic problems at home,'' Vasily
said through a translator. Much of his salary goes to pay his daughters'
tuition and upkeep, although he does not see a future for them in Romania.

``I doubt my daughters will find work at home when they finish school. But
they must study. Both my wife and I did,'' he said.

ILLEGAL WORKERS FARE BETTER

Workers' rights officials said Vasily's case is typical of a growing number
of foreigners employed in Israel.

``Israel is a unique case. Here the status of illegal workers is better
than that of legal ones,'' said Hanna Zohar, founder of Kav L'Oved, a
volunteer organisation to protect the rights of low wage earners.

``No one takes their passports, they choose their own living arrangements
and if they aren't paid they can just get up and go,'' she said.

Roughly one-third of illegal workers bring family members over, something
that legal workers are generally barred from doing, she said.

Zohar blamed the surge in foreign workers on a government policy that
preferred stop-gap measures such as deporting illegal labourers rather than
cracking down on employers for offering jobs under the table.

``The Israeli economy wanted them and the government allowed it,'' she
said. ``There's nothing easier than punishing the employers.''

And if the government now appears to be waging war against the employers,
that's because Israeli unemployment is on the rise, she said.

ENCROACHING ON ISRAELI JOBS

Government employment officials are quick to say that most foreign workers
take the place of Palestinians in construction and sanitation, and that
Israelis are not interested in such labour intensive jobs.

The number of foreign workers surged nearly 50 percent following a series
of attacks by Palestinian militants in early 1996.

During that period Israel's transition to a liberalised economy and
high-tech hothouse has fuelled national unemployment levels from 6.7
percent in 1996 to 8.9 percent in 1999, leaving behind workers with lower
skills levels and less education.

``A foreign worker does every kind of work,'' said Moshe Moshe, director of
the greater Tel Aviv employment bureau.

``Not every Israeli would do it -- take care of an elderly person, dress
him, help him to the bathroom, sleep with him,'' he said, referring to jobs
caring for the elderly often taken by women from the Philippines.

Zohar countered that view, noting: ``Israelis who go abroad work as
dishwashers and in all kinds of work. They just won't accept the low wages
offered here.''

When it comes to more skilled labour, government officials say there is
competition between the foreigners and natives.

Government studies show a majority of foreign workers arrive in Israel with
at least 10 years of vocational experience. Now they are beginning to fill
jobs in other fields, from engineering to the food industry. Since they
receive a fraction of social benefits legislated for Israelis, they are
cheaper to employ.

``Illegal workers are penetrating into various fields, some of which
constitute potential jobs for Israelis, and so compete with Israeli job
seekers,'' said Moshe Dimri, director of the national Employment Bureau
affiliated with the Labour and Social Affairs Ministry.

SOCIAL TIME BOMB?

While the Israeli media have portrayed the foreign worker phenomenon as a
ticking ``social time bomb,'' social researchers do not see an immediate
danger of racial clashes.

``I don't believe the foreign workers in Israel are a walking time bomb,''
said Yisrael Drori, a professor of public policy at Tel Aviv University.

``Maybe if there is another major influx of foreigners or a crazy murder
case it might change,'' he said. ``But I don't think the situation will be
similar to Western Europe in terms of an inferno of ethnic and racial
sentiment.''

On the other hand, Israelis are increasingly exposed to the facts of
exploitation and humiliation that foreign workers face.

``I do see a growing dilemma about their status and conditions,'' Drori said.
Melanie Orhant <<morhant@igc.org>>
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