Foreign workers flood into Israel

Fighting opens ex-Palestinian jobs

By Uli Schmetzer,
Special to the Tribune.
Mark Weiss contributed to this report from Jerusalem

July 15, 2002

TEL AVIV -- Michelita de los Reyes is a Catholic by faith, a maid by profession and a Filipina by citizenship. She also is part of a demographic phenomenon that could make Jews a minority in Israel by the end of the next decade.

A 37-year-old mother of three from the Philippine island of Palawan, Reyes mingles easily with the Thais, Chinese, Africans and Eastern Europeans who gather Sundays at Tel Aviv's Central Bus Terminal to exchange grievances, job-hunting tips and experiences.

They and thousands of other foreign workers not only give Tel Aviv a cosmopolitan look, they also are changing a nation whose Zionist founders hardly envisaged a demographic explosion of non-Jews.

The kibbutz and moshav farming communities of today's Israel rely almost entirely on foreign labor, a far cry from the days when working on the kibbutz was part of the Jewish pioneering spirit and kibbutzniks were considered members of the elite.

Today even middle-class Israelis can afford to hire a foreign housekeeper such as Reyes.

Ayoub Karaa, head of the Knesset Committee for Foreign Workers, estimates this foreign workforce -- two-thirds of whom, Reyes included, are unregistered--may already number as many as half a million, or 9 percent of Israel's population. Others put the figure at 300,000.

"I've been warning people without success that Jews in Israel will become a minority. It could happen by the year 2020. But this is too weird a concept for Israelis to accept," said Karaa, who is not Jewish.

Arnon Sofer, Israel's leading demographer, warns that foreign workers are "only the last straw" of what he calls "a catastrophe in the making."

There are an estimated 1 million Israeli Arabs with full citizenship in the Jewish state, and recent research indicates that the Muslim birthrate outpaces Jewish births by 3-1 in Israel.

The influx of foreign labor is due mainly to nearly 22 months of Israeli-Palestinian conflict. The Jewish government has banned 180,000 Palestinians from crossing from the territories to their jobs in Israel. Employers needed replacements--fast.

The door was open for economic migrants. They came in droves from Eastern Europe and Asia looking for a better future. About 70 nations are now represented in Israel's foreign labor force.

Many foreign workers, like Reyes, already have helped relatives and family members to come and work in Israel, where they can earn about $1,000 a month, far more than the typical $100 a month back home.

Some observers say that if Jews become a minority in Israel, it would be a blow to the Zionist concept of building and defending a land whose main mission was to absorb Jews from the Diaspora.

In the pre-state period and the early years after independence, pioneers viewed the employment of Hebrew labor as an essential element of the Zionist mission. The farmers of the kibbutzim and the manual workers were valued as the Zionist elite, the new Jew building the land.

But after the 1967 Middle East War, Israel's standard of living began to improve rapidly. The economy expanded, partly fueled by the availability of cheap Palestinian labor from the recently occupied West Bank and Gaza Strip.

Now, the pioneering spirit is largely dead. Most Israelis, even those out of work, refuse to take low-paid, physically demanding jobs. Employers preferred to hire Palestinians because they would work longer hours for less pay. Today, the same is true for foreign workers.

In May alone, Israel "imported" 2,000 Thai workers to harvest the vital citrus crop, a job in sweltering heat previously carried out by Palestinian laborers. The Thais live in buildings and campers on farm property.

There are about 60,000 legal workers from the Philippines in Israel, 40,000 from Romania and 35,000 from Thailand. Others come from China, the former Soviet Union, Africa and South America. In Haifa, Turkish workers are bused every day to their jobs in the naval shipyard. A part of Haifa is known as "Little Turkey."

"We have to offer incentives to Israelis to do these jobs again--incentives like cut tax rates, free transport and good wages," said Yuri Stern, a deputy minister for labor in Prime Minister Ariel Sharon's coalition government.

Industrialists hold sway

Religious and nationalist parties this summer had to shelve their proposals to crack down on illegal immigration after protests by industrialists, mainly building contractors. Their plants and construction sites were idle after Palestinians were barred from jobs in Israel.

Even if peace comes to the region, the future for Palestinian workers in Israel is not bright.

"We will never go back to the numbers and proportions of Palestinian labor as it was before the intifada," Stern said. "Employers would simply not take the risk to their own lives."

Stern has become a front-line advocate for legalizing rather than expelling foreign labor. He argues that a legal non-Jewish workforce would avoid exploitation by low wages, generate more tax revenue and prevent the kind of abuses now common. Crooked agents in the countries of origin and in Israel charge exorbitant fees to smuggle their human cargo into the country, mainly on tourist visas. Some Israeli employers confiscate the passports of their illegal foreign workers so they cannot seek other jobs.

"We are taxing employers too high for legal foreign labor. This encourages them to resort to illegal labor that costs them no taxes and lower wages," Stern said. "What we should do is to make them all legal, offer them normal social and health benefits and make bilateral agreements with labor-exporting countries."

Stern scoffs at the idea that non-Jews might someday outnumber Jews. "Most [foreigners] will go back home after they made some money," he said.

Many foreign workers, meanwhile, are dissatisfied.

"We are at their mercy," said Reyes, the maid. "We are too scared of being deported and we'll put up with anything. Some of us hardly go out."

She is paying $3,000 to an agent in Manila who helped her find work. Some Chinese say they had to pay unscrupulous agents $8,000 for being shipped in tourist convoys into Israel.

Hanna Zohar, director of the Workers' Hotline, said the influx of foreign workers has eroded Israeli values.

"We have become a nation of exploiters and have created a pool of second-class citizens with no rights," Zohar said. "This can't be healthy for Israel. We can no longer distinguish between right and wrong."

To Zohar, Israel's foreign workers are worse off than guest workers in Europe. Germany, for example, provides a whole series of social benefits for guest workers.

"Here, they have no rights whatsoever, including basic health care," she explained. "For the most part they are entirely at the mercy of their employers."

But still they keep coming.

Johnny, a 34-year-old from Romania, said he spends at least 10 hours a day cleaning Jerusalem homes. If there is an opportunity, he said, he will work seven days a week.

Johnny, who prefers not to give his family name fearing possible deportation, has been in Israel since 1995. Last year his wife, Mariana, 32, joined the wave of foreigners benefiting from the absence of Palestinian laborers.

They both paid about $6,000 to Romanian and Israeli fixers to arrange their trip to Israel. Having surrendered their passports to the fixers, they now work illegally.

"We feel really free here even though we are working illegally and the security situation is difficult," Johnny said. "All the families we clean for leave us their keys and treat us well."

Johnny and his wife live with another Romanian couple and two single men in a small apartment in the working-class Kiryat Yovel neighborhood of Jerusalem. All work illegally as house cleaners. They maintain a low profile, rarely leaving the apartment after work hours.

On prior visits to Jerusalem's Old City and Bethlehem, they were accosted by Palestinian youths who accused them of stealing Palestinian jobs in Israel.

Top foreign worker rate

According to a Bank of Israel survey, Israel has the highest proportion of foreign employees in the developed world, 9.4 percent. The state comptroller's office found that 70 percent of these workers receive less than minimal wages.

"We have no control and we have paid no attention to this problem because we have been too busy with the peace process," said Karaa, a member of Sharon's Likud party. He pointed out, however, that day-care and health-care facilities do exist for legitimate foreign workers, as well as recourse in the courts for illegal immigrants if they are arrested.

Perhaps prompted by those who take seriously the demographic predictions of a future Jewish minority in Israel, Sharon's government has made several tepid, though much-publicized, efforts this year to stem the tide of illegal economic immigrants.

The campaigns were short-lived: Economic needs superseded religious and nationalist concerns. Industrialists protested. Some desperate employers even took back their Palestinian workers who had braved Israeli bullets and sneaked across the Green Line.

"After three days of crawling across the hills into Israel, I gave up. It was not worth being shot or arrested," said Samir Abed Rabbouh, 27, from Beit Jala in the West Bank.

Copyright (c) 2002, Chicago Tribune