Volume , Number 0
There are no articles.Commentary
There are no articles.Culture
There are no articles.Features
War & Peace
Nicolas J.S. Davies
Means of Production
There are no articles.
NOTE: Z Magazine subscribers and sustainers have access to all Z Magazine articles here and in the archive. The latest Z Magazine articles available to everyone are listed in the Free Articles box at the top of the table of contents, and are starred in the list below. Questions? e-mail Z Magazine Online.
The Death of South Tel Avi
S outh Tel Aviv was never paradise. But to Alusine Idris Swaray, a Sierra Leonian civil-servant-turned-house cleaner in Israel, sometimes it seems like it was, once. Swaray has lived in Israel since 1989 when he fled the civil war starting to engulf his country. Soon after, he brought his wife, daughter, and brother to live with him. They were part of a nascent African diaspora that soon found company with migrant foreign workers from a constellation of nations that Israel turned to for cheap manual labor after it soured on Palestinian workers during the first Intifada.
In shabby but bustling South Tel Aviv, these migrants and their families—from China, the Philippines, Thailand, Eastern Europe, India, and even parts of Latin America—formed a vibrant, bootstrapping community of the sort that immigrant societies are supposed to delight in. The people worked hard—in construction, agriculture, light industry, and domestic care—and sent checks regularly to families back home. The migrants posed little problem for the state or the taxpayer: crime was low, work was plentiful, and the people generally took care of each others’ needs for health care and unemployment relief through mutual aid.
On the weekends, a multicultural social life took over the streets and parks of the neighborhood, attracting Israelis like Ilan Spira, a photographer and journalist who documents the migrants’ doings in a continuing series of ebullient pictures. The migrants spent money and liked to go out dressed in their best clothes. Some 25 churches had full congregations and weddings and birthday parties took place almost every weekend. The migrants also shared the vicissitudes of life in Israel where several have been victims of suicide bombings.
“The people were not involved in politics,” says Swaray, who helped found the African Workers Union to lobby for better access to everyday amenities for the migrants, such as bank accounts and health insurance and better enforcement of labor laws.
In September 2002 the Sharon government set up a new Immigration Administration to coordinate activities between the Interior and Justice Ministries and the police in response to both severe unemployment and complaints by the religious parties in its coalition that the migrants were threatening Israel’s status as a Jewish state. The new unit was generously funded and assigned a police force numbering almost 500 officers. It had, essentially, only one mission: to deport as many foreign migrants as possible who lacked proper papers.
It’s been grimly effective.
The Sharon government initially called for the Immigration Administration to expel 50,000 “illegal” migrant workers by the end of 2003 and 100,000 by 2005. Last September, the police unit reported 40,950 deportations thus far and that another 73,366 migrants had left “of their own volition,” either out of fear of the aggressive police campaign or because the family breadwinner had been picked up and deported. Africans in particular, most of whom came either as refugees, like Swaray, or overstayed tourist visas to find work, have been nearly obliterated—only a few hundred remain.
like South Tel Aviv are “ghost towns,” Swaray says. Most
migrants live essentially in hiding, rarely venturing into the streets
except to get to and from work. Often they spend more than they
can afford to carpool in taxis, since the police now comb the buses
for “illegals.” The churches have closed and Saturday
is a dead day in South Tel Aviv. It became too easy for the police
to pick up migrants when they left their houses or apartments. The
nice clothes are packed in boxes, ready for a friend or a human
rights worker to bring to the airport should the owner be picked
up for deportation. Many workers who remain have sent their valuables
out of the country and keep only those items they absolutely need.
Once a self-sufficient community, the migrants are sliding into poverty and helplessness. Wives and children of deported workers are showing up at offices of the municipality and NGOs asking for help to get food, medicine, and other necessities. The Hotline for Migrant Workers, which promotes the basic civil and human rights of migrants and victims of human trafficking in Israel, says its call volume has risen from about 90 per month before the crackdown to some 400 to 500.
The change in policy has also given employers major new leverage over migrants, forcing them to accept even lower wages than in the past. Otherwise, there’s the threat—frequently carried out—that the boss will call the police and tell them that a worker has “run away.”
The policy is brutally enforced. Middle-of-the-night raids of communal worker houses are common and large numbers of arrestees turn up in hospitals with broken bones or other injuries or have lost their unborn babies as a result of beatings. Detention in four specially designated deportation centers has become an agonizing state of limbo for many foreigners. It can last anywhere from a few hours to a few months as mothers struggle to prove that they are not illegals or that they have children who were born in the country—one of the few factors that can enable them to stay without an employer. Deportees have included thousands of legal workers swept up in the raids and rushed out of the country before the Interior Ministry has a chance to review their claims, a former deputy commander of the immigration police told the newspaper Ha’aretz last year.
Racist overtones surface in a public relations campaign by the Immigration Authority that makes the charge that foreign migrants are taking jobs from Israelis—ignoring the fact that few Israelis are willing to take the “wet work” migrants typically do. Government pamphlets and websites accuse migrants of undermining the Jewish character of the state, boosting unemployment, even fueling criminal activity and prostitution. At least once in 2003, an Immigration Administration official suggested publicly that their presence could facilitate terrorism.
Advertisements now appear asking for help in tracking down “runaway” workers who have left their sponsoring employer—like one that turned up in an investigation by the International Federation for Human Rights and the Euro-Mediterranean Human Rights Network in 2002, offering a reward of $3,000 each for the return of six Romanian “escaped” workers. Appeals by the Immigration Administration for tips about illegals—a cleaning person hiding out at a neighbor’s, a construction worker sleeping on the site— netted some 6,000 “squeals” in less than 2 years, Ha’aretz reports.
Before, the atmosphere was quite tolerant; there were no hate crimes,” says Shecy Korzen, executive director of the Hotline for Migrant Workers. “But the deportation campaign has the effect of digging out the hidden xenophobic feelings here.”
Israel is similar to other industrialized countries with a high demand for cheap foreign labor and that manage their burgeoning flow of migrants through contracted or permitted labor schemes. The Bush administration is now proposing a new bracero program, like the one that brought Mexican workers to the U.S. for short periods from the 1940s to the 1960s, at the same time that it is energetically hunting down and deporting illegal immigrants. The Blair government in the UK is trying to end the flow of asylum seekers into the country even as it implements a similar temporary worker program ( Z , November 2004).
But Israel’s legal code is different. It includes a “binding law” that essentially attaches migrants to a single employer throughout their stay in the country. The effect is equivalent to indentured servitude, illegal under international law. The only other countries where this is practiced, somewhat ironically, are the Persian Gulf states, including Oman, Kuwait, and the United Arab Emirates.
The sheer presence of foreign migrant workers in Israel is also far larger than in the other “Western” societies with which Israel seeks to identify itself. As many as 300,000 non-Jewish migrants (13 percent of the workforce) live and work in Israel. That’s another point of similarity with the Jewish state’s Arab neighbors. A 2000 UN report cites Israel as sharing with these countries the distinction of having the highest percentages of international migrants in the world: 37.4 percent of its total population (including naturalized Jewish persons), placing it ahead of Oman (26.9 percent) and behind the UAE (73.8 percent), Kuwait (57.9 percent), and Jordan (39.6 percent).
Migrant foreign workers— about two-thirds of them illegal—have become, in effect, the unintended victims of Israel’s long war of wills against the Palestinian people, as well as the unwitting key to its effort to marginalize them. While better than 40,000 migrants have left Israel since the deportation campaign began, the government issued 76,603 permits for new migrant workers in just the first 9 months of last year. That compares with 111,380 issued in 2002, 102,886 in 2001, and 81,646 in 2000, but is still far more than enough to sustain and even expand the foreign migrant population as long as the deportation campaign continues.
How did this happen? Most theories start with two factors: the influence of large employers, especially in agriculture and construction, over politicians; and employers’ determination to hold on to a supply of cheap, unskilled labor.
A third important element is high unemployment in Israel’s low-gear “Intifada economy.” When the new policy toward migrants was being debated in 2002, unemployment among Israelis stood at around 300,000—roughly the same number of migrants then in the state. Of course, there’s the state’s continuing desire to remove Palestinians from the labor mix.
The final ingredient is the migrants’ own ambiguous legal status. The migrants represent a living contradiction to the very idea of a Jewish national state. In principle, they are not supposed to exist in Israel. The very name Immigration Administration is a technical impossibility for non-Jews, yet non-Jews are the population with which it is concerned.
Israel created rules of admission for non-Jewish workers from overseas in the 1980s to fill certain jobs requiring special skills. The binding law was supposed to ensure that these situations remained specific and rare. As soon as an employer no longer needs their services, workers’ permits are revoked and they must leave the country. The binding law remained in place even after Israel started importing hundreds of thousands of unskilled migrants after the 1980s. After 1995, moreover, foreign workers without papers and no longer working for their sponsoring employer became subject, at least nominally, to immediate deportation.
But for a long time, racial hatred of migrants remained rare. Activists like Swaray and Arnold Evangelista, who organized Filipino workers, even cultivated ties with Knesset members and hoped with their help to spark a gradual easing of the rules affecting migrants.
That effort suffered its first blow in 2000, when a Thai worker killed an Israeli. Suddenly the idea of regularizing the migrants’ status became politically delicate. When the economy worsened during the second Intifada, the migrants found themselves easy scapegoats.
If the binding law, the political influence of powerful employers’ groups, high unemployment among Israelis, and the country’s self-identity as a Jewish state were the bed of kindling upon which the migrant worker community rested, the 2002 crackdown was the match that lit the fire. It vastly accelerated a vicious cycle of exploitation that already existed in Israel, but had never before been so virulent.
The cycle is much like those that plague migrants in other countries that rely on cheap labor, but with a few peculiarly Israeli twists, like the binding law. It starts with recruiting agencies that canvass countries like Thailand, China, Romania, and the Philippines for workers. Usually working with a local firm— sometimes with tight government connections, or even owned by the government—the recruiters offer the workers a deal. For an up-front payment or series of payments, workers can come to Israel where a job is waiting, usually for the minimum wage of $600 to $700 a month.
How much they hand over after borrowing from loan sharks depends on the country: Chinese pay as much as $10,000, equal to up to 7 years’ wages back home. Romanians pay some $3,500 and Filipinos $5,000. Such payments are illegal in Israel. Recruitment agencies in Romania often require workers who want to go to Israel to sign a mortgage on their houses as a guarantee they will fulfill their contract, even though this is illegal in both countries and is considered a form of “debt bondage” under international law. But these laws are rarely enforced.
Recruiters are seldom punished either when, as often happens, they bring groups of workers into Israel and then abandon them because no job is actually waiting. Those who do have jobs waiting often find they amount to much less than advertised. Most pay less than minimum wage: 80 percent of foreign migrants earn below the minimum, according to a 2000 study, versus about 10 percent of Israelis. Which makes paying back one’s loan difficult, let alone sending money home to one’s family. Work hours usually come to six or even seven days a week, despite the fact that Israel’s labor laws, which extend to foreign migrants, forbid it.
Conditions, especially in the construction business, are often wretched. Workers are often required to sleep on the building site, with no proper sanitary facilities or sleeping quarters. When workers complain about conditions, they tend to get a fast ticket home, as happened to Arnold Evangelista, for whom the Hotline for Migrant Workers tried to arrange a bail hearing when the Filipino activist was arrested early in 2003. The hearing was preempted when the court learned that the police had already bought him a ticket home at public expense.
The binding law has enabled employers to turn migration into indentured servitude in all but name. Ha’aretz reported in February 2003 that one manpower company, Y. Tsarfati, promised contractors that the workers it supplied would not run away, offering $5,000 in compensation for anyone who tried.
Employers typically confiscate workers’ passports, making it perilous to venture out in public and impossible for them to legally obtain a job with another employer. Interior Ministry officials reportedly have been known to personally hand the passports to employers at the airport. Because taking passports is a criminal offense in Israel punishable by a year in prison and a fine, employers sometimes force the worker to sign a statement authorizing the employer to hold his or her passport for “safekeeping.”
Doubly locking migrants in place, employers often refuse to pay the workers their wages until the job is well advanced or even completed. Sometimes even then they never see their money—the employer instead calls the police and reports them as runaways.
Otherwise, when a project is complete, many employers will rent out their migrants to other companies. They then tell the workers to show up at a different work site the next day without any further explanation. That again turns the workers into illegals without their really knowing it. United Nations and International Labor Organization conventions against “manpower trafficking”—the intercompany transfer or “sale” of workers—are ignored.
The crackdown hasn’t helped with Israeli unemployment. According to the Central Bureau of Statistics, unemployment was at about 263,000 when the crackdown commenced. Two years later, it has actually risen to 288,000, despite the departure of some 116,000 migrant workers from the country.
Many employers, meanwhile, are just as eager to hire illegal undocumented migrants at higher than minimum wage, especially in construction and agriculture. For workers who know that they could be deported any time if the whim strikes their sponsoring employer, the possibility of making more money with a boss who has an interest in keeping them in the country is hard to resist.
Employers are the one group who undoubtedly benefit from the current situation. When they report a rash of runaways, they can simply petition the Interior Ministry to award them another batch of permits to bring in another crop of migrants. Their political clout generally means they get their way.
Why do the Interior Ministry and the Immigration Administration so often appear to work hand-in- glove with the recruiting agencies and large employers? Corruption is one possible explanation. Shlomo Benizri, a former labor and social welfare minister, was accused last year of having taken bribes—including free cleaning services by two workers from Eastern Europe—from a contractor in return for permission to keep employing foreign workers and supplying a job for the contractor’s wife. Several of his former aides have been investigated too.
Some NGOs believe the explanation is more overarching, however, and that tacit acceptance of the migrant worker merry-go-round is a government quid pro quo for the relatively low levels of state subsidy to business in Israel. Agricultural subsidies, for example, hover around 10 percent versus 50 percent in Western Europe. Cheap unskilled labor helps Israel stay competitive.
“The fact of organizing deportations at the same time as authorizing the arrival of new migrant workers is a way of achieving two goals at minimal cost,” the report by the International Federation for Human Rights and the Euro-Mediterranean Human Rights Network concluded. “First, a frequent rotation of migrant workers guarantees the docility of the newcomers and ensures social peace, as new migrants are ignorant of Israeli laws, live in isolation in society and employment, and have substantial financial debts to be repaid in a relatively short period. Secondly, it helps in the struggle against inflation to keep wages down.”
For migrants, of course, the “struggle” to shave a few fractions of a percentage point off Israel’s inflation rate and keep the land clear of Palestinian day laborers has mainly resulted in human misery. Swaray, who has seen the African Workers Union dwindle from around 6,000 members to a handful in just 2 years, now says his most urgent work is to advocate for the 1,700-some Israeli-born children of migrants, who face deportation at age 18 to countries they never knew.
Last year, then-Interior Minister Avraham Poratz of the liberal Shinui Party proposed allowing these children—an estimated 650—to apply for temporary and, later, permanent resident status. Mothers would be allowed to stay with them in the country until their children turned 21. But the idea was bottled in a Knesset committee dominated by unsympathetic right-wingers. A ray of hope appeared early this year when the new minister, Ophir Pines-Paz, extended until July a moratorium on deportations of the Israeli-born children and their mothers, pending an effort to reclaim his authority to decide on their permanent status.
What will happen is unclear. Sigal Rozen, a longtime activist with the Hotline for Migrant Workers, a support group, cautions that Pines-Paz may not get his way, despite statements that indicate he’s received encouragement from Sharon’s office. Making it harder to say no, however, are the children, acculturated as Israelis, some of whom have spoken out for their rights. “These children read Hebrew, read the newspapers, and are the kind of people who do demonstrations in front of the parliament building,” Rozen says. “So you can’t just say to them, one year later, ‘No, you can’t stay.’ The more time passes, the more difficult it will be for the government to change its mind.”
If so, one reason will be that the number of these children is so small. Meanwhile, thousands more of adult migrants continue to live in fear. To the extent that the government pays attention, its focus has been to curtail the number of foreign workers brought into the country—and these moves are likely to make the abuse they suffer even worse.
The most recent changes of policy award migrant worker permits not to employers but to the recruiting agencies. The government argues that this will enable it to regulate the use of permits more effectively. But advocates for migrant workers fear it will allow the recruiters to create a cartel to keep wages down and lobby the government more effectively.
Another recent change, effective in May, raises the tax that employers must pay to retain foreign migrant workers to 20,000 shekels, paid up-front—roughly the difference in wages between the migrants and native-born Israelis. The idea was to make it prohibitively expensive for most employers to bring in migrants. But activists warn that mafia-style recruiters will inevitably figure out how to keep the pipeline flowing under the new rules, driving the migrant community further underground. Human rights organizations are appealing the new laws to the Israeli Supreme Court.
These groups are working on other fronts as well, pushing for a combination of better laws and better enforcement of existing labor rules. The Hotline for Migrant Workers (www. hotline.org) and Kav La’oved (www.kavlaoved.org), a nonprofit dedicated to defending the rights of all disadvantaged workers in Israel, offer a series of proposals. These include informing arriving legal migrants of their rights, doing away with the “binding” of workers to employers, enforcing the labor laws, and ending quotas and terroristic raids.
Rallying public opinion behind the rights of an unrepresented population of “temporary” cohabitants is not easy, especially when the Intifada and high unemployment are giving Israelis plenty to think about. Last fall the Immigration Administration set the goal of deporting another 50,000 undocumented migrants in 2005, despite the lack of evidence that the policy has any effect on employment.
Adriana Kemp, who has studied the migrant worker population for some years, believes that sooner or later, Israeli society will be forced to change its thinking toward its non-Jewish guests. The demand for migrants is unlikely to slacken, she says, especially for domestic workers, whose role will only grow along with Israel’s elderly population—and for whom there are no limits on permits.
What’s discouraging, Kemp says, is that the mistakes Israel is making today are the same ones that European societies experiencing labor shortages made in the 1960s and 1970s. “The classic case was Germany, which only in the 1970s realized it was a de facto immigrant state,” Kemp says. Twenty years later, Israel is going through its own cycle of exploitation and repression. Until it ends, the migrants continue to suffer.
Eric Laursen is an independent journalist and activist based in New York. Photos by Ilan Spira.
Z Magazine Archive
CUBAN 5 - From May 30 to June 5, supporters of the Cuban 5 will gather in Washington DC to raise awareness about the case and to demand a humanitarian solution that will allow the return of these men to their homeland.
Contact: email@example.com; firstname.lastname@example.org.
BIKES - Bikes Not Bombs is holding its 24th annual Bike- A-Thon and Green Roots Festival in Boston, MA on June 3, with several bike rides, music, exhibitors, and more.
Contact: Bikes Not Bombs, 284 Amory St., Jamaica Plain, MA 02130; 617-522-0222; mailbikesnotbombs.org; www.bikesnotbombs.org.
LEFT FORUM - The 2013 Left Forum will be held June 7-9, at Pace University in NYC.
Contact: 365 Fifth Avenue, CUNY Graduate Center, Sociology Dept., New York, NY 10016; http://www.leftforum.org/.
VEGAN FEST - Mad City Vegan Fest will be held in Madison, WI, June 8. The annual event features food, speakers, and exhibitors.
Contact: 122 State Street, Suite 405 B, Madison, WI 53701; email@example.com; http://veganfest.org/.
ADC CONFERENCE - The American-Arab Anti-Discrimination Committee (ADC) holds its annual conference June 13-16 in Washington, DC, with panel discussions and workshops.
Contact: 1990 M Street, Suite 610, Washington, DC, 20036; 202-244-2990; convention @adc. org http://convention.adc.org/.
CUBA/SOCIALISM - A Cuban-North American Dialog on Socialist Renewal and Global Capitalist Crisis will be held in Havana, Cuba, June 16-30. There will be a 5-day Seminar at the University of Havana, plus visits to a co-op and educational and medical institutions.
Contact: firstname.lastname@example.org; http://www.globaljustice center.org/.
NETROOTS - The 8th Annual Netroots Nation conference will take place June 20-23 in San Jose, CA. The event features panels, trainings, networking, screenings, and keynotes.
Contact: 164 Robles Way, #276, Vallejo, CA 94591; email@example.com; http://www.netrootsnation.org/.
MEDIA - The 15th annual Allied Media Conference will be held June 20-23, in Detroit.
Contact: 4126 Third Street, Detroit, MI 48201; http://alliedmedia.org/.
GRASSROOTS - The United We Stand Festival will be hosted by Free & Equal, June 22 in Little Rock, Arkansas. The festival aims to reform the electoral process in the U.S.
LITERACY - The National Association for Media Literacy Education (NAMLE) will hold its conference July 12-13 in Los Angeles.
Contact: 10 Laurel Hill Drive, Cherry Hill, NJ 08003; http://namle.net/conference/.
IWW - The North American Work People’s College will take place July 12-16 at Mesaba Co-op Park in northern Minnesota. The event will bring together Wobblies from across the continent to learn skills and build one big union.
PEACESTOCK - On July 13, the 11th Annual Peacestock will take place at Windbeam Farm in Hager City, WI. The event is a mixture of music, speakers, and community for peace. Sponsored by Veterans for Peace.
Contact: Bill Habedank, 1913 Grandview Ave., Red Wing, MN 55066; 651-388-7733; firstname.lastname@example.org; http://www. peacestockvfp.org.
LA RAZA - The annual National Council of La Raza (NCLR) Conference is scheduled for July 18-19 in New Orleans, with workshops, presentations, and panel discussions.
Contact: NCLR Headquarters Office, Raul Yzaguirre Building, 1126 16th Street, NW, Washington, DC 20036; 202-785-1670; www.nclr.org.
ACTIVIST CAMP - Youth Empowered Action (YEA) Camp will have sessions in July and August in Ben Lomond, CA; Portland, OR; Charlton, MA. YEA Camp is designed for activists 12-17 years old who want to make a difference.
Contact: email@example.com; http://yeacamp.org/.