Washington Report on Middle East Affairs, July/August 1995, pgs. 17, 120

Special Report

The Thais, Romanians and Others Who Have Replaced Palestinian Workers

By Frank Collins

The partial and frequent total closures of Israeli borders to Palestinians from Gaza and the Israeli-occupied territories have, in the past, created major shortages of low-paid workers in the Israeli agricultural, construction and service industries. Over the past two years, however, large numbers of Thais, Romanians and other foreigners have been imported into Israel to replace the Palestinian workers.

Ora Namir, Minister of Labor and Social Affairs, reported May 27 that the number of foreign workers with valid visas working in Israel was already 61,000. The actual number is higher than this because an unknown number of foreign workers have overstayed their visas or have entered Israel illegally.

As for the future, Prime Minister Yitzhak Rabin has announced a target of 90,000 imported workers, a number likely to be exceeded because of the presence of the illegals. These figures are to be compared with the 97,000 Palestinians who commuted to work in Israel in 1991, according to estimates of the World Bank. The projected increase in the number of foreign workers means that there will be very few jobs left for Palestinians.

In the view of the Israeli public, the importation of the large numbers of foreign workers is now irrevocable and, in the opinion of some Israelis, the foreign workers will enable a final break with the Palestinians. The new workers present few security problems and, in addition, will accept lower wages and far poorer working conditions than the Palestinian workers whose own wages and working conditions have been far from good.

Israeli minimum wage laws have been widely evaded by employers of Palestinian labor, particularly in the case of unregistered workers. In addition, Palestinian workers have received no social benefits from the Israeli government, even though social benefits taxes have been deducted from their wages.

The economic position of the imported workers is considerably inferior to that of the Palestinians. Even legally admitted workers seldom, if ever, contact the Israeli authorities to complain about wages and working conditions because of the language barrier and because they fear retribution by their employers. The situation is much worse for illegal workers because to complain would probably mean instant deportation and non-payment of wages due.

In a March 3 article about the foreign workers, the Hebrew-language newspaper Yediot Ahronot cites two cases characteristic of this kind of exploitation:

In one case, a legally admitted construction worker received two successive monthly pay checks of $220 instead of the $800 he had been promised by the Israeli representative in Romania. When he called on his fellow workers to strike, however, he was kidnapped from his apartment, brutally beaten in an orange grove by thugs and then taken to the airport for deportation. He also was threatened with being taken to the orange grove for more "treatment" if he did not go peacefully.

Israeli employers have garnered huge savings in wages paid to the docile foreign workers.

In the second case, Yediot Ahronot reported that "Eilat serves as a safe haven for illegal workers. In a room measuring 4 by 4 meters [179 square feet] live 16 Romanian workers who are employed in construction. The pay slip of one of them revealed that his basic salary was $793.70; income tax took $51.90, $2.10 went for health payments, $25 for medical insurance and $100 was deducted for accommodations. Ultimately the worker received $610 for a month of working 10 and more hours per day [equivalent to $1.96 per hour]. [Other] Romanian and Thai workers glared in envy on hearing that sum. One by one they took out their pay slips, showing net wages of $210 for one month of construction work [$0.81 per hour]."

The workers imported legally are under contract for one or two years and are transported to Israel in large groups. Another article in Yediot Ahronot of March 17, 1995 described the premier Israeli labor contractor's operation in Thailand. He was reported to have been paid $120 each for 13,000 Thais he imported for agricultural work in Israel in the first two and a half months of 1995. He claims, however, that he netted just $10 per worker. He is quoted as saying that the Thai worker "has a background in agriculture. He is reliable and obedient. And, unlike a Russian or a Romanian, he can stew in a hothouse for hours, even at a temperature of 42 degrees Celsius [108º F]."

One of the farmers at the virtual slave market at the airport where the workers are divided up among employers said that the Thais work hard from 6 a.m. until 7 p.m. and even until midnight if necessary.

What if the foreign worker cannot adjust to the work in Israel? He can return home, but only if he has the price of a two-way air ticket. For all practical purposes, this means that he has to work out his contract under conditions that differ little from slavery.

Yet, in spite of the above conditions, there is no lack of workers from Thailand, Romania and some other countries eager to come to Israel for employment. The incentive is that even the low wages offered in Israel are much higher than those of the home country. For example, a worker at a job paying $95 per month in Romania is offered $800 by an Israeli labor contractor for a comparable job in Israel.

In spite of such horror stories as those related in Yediot Ahronot, most foreign workers are able to remit money to their families in amounts that seem large in their home countries. This state of affairs is quite familiar to Americans. There is no lack of Hispanics anxious to cross the Mexican border for underpaid jobs in the United States.

The Israeli labor contracts are typically for two years, at which time the worker's visa expires and he is legally required to leave Israel. His employer has usually impounded his passport to prevent him from departing prematurely for home or escaping to other work in Israel. The passport is now returned and the worker is expected to go home on the return part of his two-way ticket. A significant fraction of the contract workers nevertheless stay on in Israel rather than return to the desperate economic conditions in the home countries they left behind.

Therefore, according to a Yediot Ahronot investigation team, the number of foreign workers illegally in Israel is increasing rapidly. The Israeli bureaucracy has been unsuccessful in stopping this flow. The police and the Labor and Social Affairs Ministry are making modest attempts, but the Foreign Ministry is uncooperative for fear of damaging diplomatic relations with the foreign countries involved. In this state of affairs, criminal rings are doing a flourishing business in Israel and abroad forging passports, visas and even certificates of Orthodox Judaism.

Israeli employers have benefited most by the wave of job seekers and have garnered huge savings in wages paid to the docile foreign workers rather than to the Palestinians they replaced. Benefits to the rest of the country are less clear. The labor cost savings may mean somewhat lower prices of goods, which would help exports and thus lower Israel's staggering trade deficit.

Against this is the Israeli loss of the considerable trade with the Palestinians in the territories that was only made possible by the take-home wages of the Palestinians commuting to work in Israel. The surplus for Israel in trade with the occupied territories amounted to nearly $1 billion in 1991, but since then has been in rapid decline.

Therefore, it is obvious that the real burden of the cost of the replacement of the Palestinians by foreign labor falls directly on the shoulders of the Palestinians. More than a third of the Palestinian labor force was employed in Israel in 1991, according to World Bank data. Most of those Palestinian workers now have lost their jobs. This has led to a corresponding contraction of the Palestinian economy, accompanied by a reported 50 to 60 percent Palestinian unemployment rate.

The outlook for the future of the Palestinians is grim. After the signing of the Oslo agreement, there were high expectations for massive investments in the West Bank and the Gaza Strip. In the Oct. 1, 1993 meeting of the affluent nations called by President Clinton in Washington, $2.4 billion over five years was pledged by a number of "donor" nations, to be handled by the World Bank. For a number of reasons, the pledges have not materialized except for a small trickle, mainly to pay running expenses of the Palestinian National Authority rather than productive investments. As a second disappointment, investments in the territories by private organizations have been minimal.

Contrary to the statements by the government of Israeli Prime Minister Yitzhak Rabin in support of the U.S.-promoted peace process, Rabin now seems determined to abandon the Palestinians to their fate. Undaunted by the failure of the exclusion of Gazans from Israel, Rabin now is considering the construction of another such fence to isolate the Palestinians in the West Bank from Israel. His dilemma is that among the more than one million West Bank Palestinians are 140,000 Jewish settlers who cannot be walled off with the Palestinians. 

Frank Collins is a regular contributor to the Washington Report on Middle East Affairs.

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