Tuesday, 29 December 2009

A tiny step forward for migrants' rights in Israel

For Israeli workers, the equivalent of the British Trade Union Congress (TUC) or American Federation of Labor (AFL-CIO) is the Histadrut. However, the "General Federation of Laborers in the Land of Israel" is an anomalous organisation.

It was founded in 1920 not only as a trade union, promoting workers' rights, but also as a Labour Zionist organisation, promoting land settlement and the employment of Jews over Arabs, despite the latter receiving lower wages.The union's state-building role made it the owner of a number of businesses and factories and, at one point, the largest employer in the country.

Writing for the Electronic Intifada, Tony Greenstein explains the role of Histadrut in the ongoing occupation and apartheid;
The exploitation of Palestinian workers from the occupied territories was institutionalized by an Israeli cabinet decision of October 1970. It provided that the military administration should supervise their employment. Their wages would be distributed by the payments department of the National Employment Service. Histadrut was a partner in this arrangement. National Insurance coverage was permitted in only three areas: work accidents, employer bankruptcy and a grant on the birth of a child in an Israeli hospital. Ten percent of the wages of Palestinian workers went to a special "Equalization Fund," which was supposed to supply the population in the occupied territories with social and cultural services. In fact, this money was used to finance the occupation. The workers did not receive unemployment and disability benefits, old-age pensions, a monthly child allowance or vocational training.

In addition, each Palestinian worker had to pay one percent of his or her wages as dues to Histadrut. Workers saw nothing in return and now a fraction of this money has been returned, as a propaganda ploy, to the Palestinian General Federation of Trade Unions. When the Shin Bet intelligence service used work permits as a means to coerce Palestinian workers to collaborate, with those who refused being placed on a blacklist and their work permits cancelled, Histadrut again did nothing.
It is not just Palestinians who suffer under Israel's two-tier labour system, either. Kav LaOved is "a nonprofit non governmental organization committed to protecting the rights of disadvantaged workers employed in Israel and by Israelis in the Occupied Territories, including Palestinians, migrant workers, subcontracted workers and new immigrants." Using the case study of "N," they describe the conditions that migrants in Israel endure;
The majority of migrant workers in Israel are exposed to disgraceful exploitation by their employers. The employers do not act in vacuum – the State of Israel, with its laws and degrading attitude towards the rights of migrant workers, gives a clear message to job brokers and employers that the workers are nothing more than tools.

One can charge exorbitant amounts of money from workers simply for bringing them over. Basic rights to family life and childbirth are denied. It is legitimate to “bind” workers to their employers, and rarely would the authorities come to enforce or check the conditions in which workers are employed.

These issues have been discussed many times in the media, and I estimate that the public is aware of the large scale of exploitation and humiliation. But what happens when a worker tries to find out what his rights by law are and demand them? The worker is detained! That’s what happened to N., a worker from Nepal who was detained by the Oz unit.

During the trial the visa expired

After five years of working in Israel, N. decided to find out what his rights were and approached Kav LaOved. The investigation revealed that his employer imposed even more disgraceful conditions than common: workers received wages much lower than the minimum and the right for days off and holidays was denied. Frequently workers were forced to work dozens of consecutive days, more than 16 hours a day. Some were fined when they were five minutes late to work, and the hands of one worker were seriously hurt as a result of overexposure to chemical substances.

Immediately after collecting N.’s testimony and the documents in his possession, Kav LaOved decided to take N.’s case to court. But during the few weeks that it usually takes to file a case, N.’s visa expired. From that point, the way to the Ramle jail was short.

While in custody, N. presented to the Oz unit inspectors a letter from Kav LaOved, clearly stating that the organization was representing him in legal proceeding against his employer, for which he should remain in Israel a few more weeks. The inspectors were probably inspired by Tsiki Sela, the commanding officer at the time, who believed that organizations providing aid to migrant workers were interested in the destruction of Israel. With much “sensitivity and compassion”, they carried N. in the detainee’s van. Now he is waiting in his cell for the Court decision on whether he can be released on bail.

Years of disgraceful abuse and exploitation

Four months ago, following a complaint by Kav LaOved, the economic unit of the immigration police started an investigation against N.’s employer. Within a month, charges of exploitation and fraud were made against the company owners.

But this is of no concern to the Israeli Minister of Interior Affairs, the Oz commander or inspectors. From their point of view, N.’s stay in Israel is illegal, because his visa expired two weeks ago. What about his rights to severance pay, fair wages for years of hard labor, denied days off and holidays and other social benefits denied him during all those years? How can a person exercise his legal right to sue his employer for years of disgraceful exploitation under the threat of detention and deportation? Minister Eli Yishay may has the answer.

When I heard about N.’s arrest, I recalled my trip to Nepal ten years ago, and how enthusiastic I was about the hikes I took there, the views, the excellent food – but mainly about the generous and smiling people. In contrast, it will be interesting to see what N. will have to tell his family and friends about Israel and its citizens, after his many years of exploitation and humiliation.

Now, however, it would appear that organising pressure has forced a slight, but vital, change in that situation. Three years ago a new trade union called Koach La'ovdim, "Power to the Workers," started organizing workers in non-unionised sectors. Particularly, the organisation of migrant care-workers and increasing militancy from Chinese construction workers have forced a reaction from Histadrut.

According to Histadrut itself, "until now the Constitution of the Histadrut allowed only Israeli citizens to be members of the Histadrut." But the executive leadership has "decided to submit a proposed resolution to the Histadrut Legislative Assembly to change the Constitution which would allow migrant workers to become regular Histadrut members." In the press release, they declare their newfound commitment to "work as a trade union to promote the status, working conditions, and to protect the rights of migrant workers in Israel, based on the principles of equality and the Israeli law."

The Histadrut has "also decided to object the deportation of the migrant workers children." As Al-Arabiya reports, "some 1,200 Asian and African children born in Israel had faced deportation along with their parents on Nov. 1 following a crackdown on foreign workers who have overstayed their visas and continue working in the Jewish state." Israeli PM Binyamin Netanyahu has postponed the move "until the end of the school year," but it still looks set to go ahead. The opposition by the Histadrut represents a vital obstacle to this happening.

However, the Histadrut's apparent change in stance should not be seen as a greater breakthrough than it is. As Hannah Zohar, executive director of Kav LaOved told the Jerusalem Post, "if the Histadrut really takes actions, then it might change things," but "the only reason the Histadrut decided to accept membership of foreign workers is because they now have competition from an alternative workers' organization, Koach La'ovdim." They are "spurred to act" only because "they have some competition from a democratic and inclusive union." In reality, they are "used to going over the workers' heads to reach bargains with employers."

This more familiar tactic is evident in the fact that "the executive [has also] stated that it would support the gradual decrease of work permits for foreign workers in an effort to reduce unemployment." According to Ofer Eini, head of the Histadrut, is that "work permits should only be issued according to real market needs, after ensuring all opportunities to employ Israeli workers have been exhausted." This nationalistic sentiment proves that the union and its executive is commited more to the goals of right-wing Zionism and the Israeli nation-state than representing all workers, regardless of race or nationality, against the bosses.

As such, the apparent change of heart by Israel's biggest labour federation should be taken with a pinch of salt. But the opportunity that their move represents should be seized upon by those who wish equal rights for all workers and an end to exploitation. It is only the tiniest of steps forward, but nonetheless it is a vital one.