Washington Report on Middle East Affairs, June 2003, pages 31, 93

Islam and the Middle East in the Far East

State Department Human Rights Report Assesses Foreign Workers' Status in Israel

By John Gee

Very few Americans, and perhaps even fewer non-Americans, take the trouble to plough through the State Department's annual country reports on human rights practices. This is a pity, because, although sometimes vulnerable to charges of selectivity, a lot of work has gone in to them and they can provide a fairly good summary of the state of human rights within countries. Every year, in foreign ministries around the world, officials charged with defending their countries' conduct must get a sinking feeling as the report thuds on their desks or pops up on their computer monitors.

The 2002 report on Israel (only published at the end of March 2003), contains a section on the position of non-Palestinian foreign workers in Israel, the majority of whom, it notes, come from Eastern Europe and Southeast Asia and work in construction and agriculture. It highlights one particular abuse to which Israeli NGOs, particularly Kav La'Oved (Workers' Hotline) and the Hotline for Foreign Workers, have drawn attention:

"There have been growing allegations that foreign workers were being lured to Israel with the promise of jobs that in fact did not exist. Many foreign workers paid up to $10,000 to work in Israel. Work visas were tied to specific jobs, and quotas to bring in foreign workers were assigned by the government to employers. Technically, it is illegal for manpower companies who provide workers to an employer to receive payments from the worker, but NGOs and news articles alleged that the companies made thousands of dollars from each worker brought into the country, usually as a payment from the foreign partner. According to NGOs, there have been a significant number of cases where workers have been dismissed shortly after arriving in Israel. These NGOs alleged that the manpower companies worked with deportation authorities to deport the newly arrived workers, who were then replaced with new workers, earning the manpower companies more fees. NGOs argued that most workers expected to work for some time in Israel to recoup their initial payments; often they sought illegal employment for fear of returning home with large debts. According to NGOs, there have been cases where workers have killed themselves rather than face this prospect."

Although the report does not go into further details, Chinese workers seem to have been particularly susceptible to this form of abuse. Through their extended families and acquaintances, they are able to scrape together the money demanded by agents who paint a rosy picture of the earnings they can expect to make in Israel. Israeli agents work hand in glove with Chinese recruiters to fleece the workers, both taking a generous cut once the costs of airfare and more legitimate expenses are deducted. The workers normally do whatever they can to avoid deportation, as that would mean returning home with a millstone of debt still around their necks and nothing to show for their efforts. Some have appealed their deportation, while others have become illegal workers, forced into the worst paying jobs of all by their status.

Histadrut, the Israeli labor federation, shows only a token interest in the rights of non-Jewish workers.

Thais are also reported to have fallen victim to such practices. Many of those who go to Israel are recruited from villages to work in agriculture. In some cases, agents bumped up the fees charged to them from around $2,400 in 2001 to over $5,000 by mid-2002.

In many countries, national trade union federations would see it both as their duty and as advantageous to the home workforce to recruit migrant workers and campaign for their rights, but Histadrut, the Israeli labor federation maintains its tradition of showing only a token interest in the rights of non-Jewish workers. The State Department human rights report states:

"During the year there were attempts to include foreign workers within the national trade union Histadrut. News articles and some advocates stated that the union was interested only in collecting dues and had not acted to protect key union members who were singled out for deportation. The editor of the foreign worker newspaper Manila-Tel Aviv Times was deported shortly after giving interviews to other publications on the subject of foreign worker rights under the law; foreign worker advocates claimed the deportation was politically motivated. Human rights groups claimed that since foreign worker residency permits were tied to specific employment, even legal foreign workers had little leverage to influence their work conditions."

The number of workers in Israel from outside the region may shrink, however. Over 10,000 were deported by the Immigration Police up to March 2003 in a crackdown upon illegal workers initiated by the government in August 2002. Around 15,000 more were estimated to have left of their own choice. Fears of arrest by the Immigration Police, of suicide bombings and a possible spill-over of the expected war on Iraq are all thought to have had an impact on their decisions to go. Last October, Israeli Prime Minister Ariel Sharon's announcement that no more foreign workers would be allowed to be imported until the end of 2003 brought howls of protest from the some 350 manpower companies that profit from them. Sharon said that employers who already had clearance to import workers could take on illegals already present in Israel instead.

Some vacancies in construction have been filled by Palestinian citizens of Israel, but any sustained fall in foreign recruitment could force the Israeli government to allow the number of workers permitted to enter Israel from the West Bank and Gaza Strip to rise once more from the present 6,000.

Workers Cheated

Claims that the unleashing of a U.S. war upon Iraq could encourage Saddam Hussain to fire rockets bearing chemical weapons at Israel led its government to distribute gas masks to citizens and put the country on an alert. Although fears over a possible attack naturally spread to the foreign workers employed in Israel, their appeals to be supplied with the same protection as Israeli citizens were met by a government ruling that they were ineligible for free gas masks. They were told in January that they could buy gas masks and atropin injection kits (to counter the effects of nerve gas) from special distribution points instead.

An investigation by the Israeli daily Ha'aretz ("Gov't sells expired protective kits to foreign workers," by Anat Cygielman, March 12, 2003) revealed that "the defense establishment" was selling foreign workers masks and injection kits that had passed their expiry dates. The gas masks were made in 1982, while all those for Israelis were made in 1984 or later. The atropin injection kits dated to 1995, while none of those distributed to Israelis was older than 1996. The Home Front Command had instructed Israelis to replace masks made before 1984 and injection kits made before 1996. When some foreign workers found out what had happened and asked to have the expired equipment replaced, their request was refused and they were told they would have to pay the full price for new masks and kits.

The Israeli human rights group Physicians for Human Rights issued a statement strongly criticizing the government's conduct.

Iraq War Woes for Malaysia

Malaysia took a bruising in the U.S.-led war on Iraq. With the downfall of Saddam Hussain's regime, it saw the prospect of selling 5,000 of its nationally produced Proton cars, ordered by the fallen Iraqi government, going up in smoke. Petronas, Malaysia's national petroleum company, was one of the foreign firms involved in the development of Iraq's oil resources prior to the war. It was left wondering whether anything could be salvaged from its involvement in Iraq.

Malaysians felt frustrated that the worldwide protests against the war had not prevented it from being launched and disappointed that the resistance to the invasion had not been more effective.

The press as a whole reflected the feelings of the general public when the old regime fell: they showed no regret that Saddam Hussain was gone, but they expressed deep disquiet about the U.S.-British occupation of Iraq. An editorial in Utusan Malaysia, a leading national Malay-language newspaper, said: "Not only did Iraqis and Iraqi property suffer greatly, but a Muslim country lost its independence."

Similar attitudes were expressed in neighboring Indonesia, whose government also took a strong stand against the war.

Big Brother Devices for Export

Worried about the spread of SARS (severe acute respiratory syndrome), the Singaporean government tried to limit the transmission of the illness by quarantining those exposed to it. Although they were not confined in hospitals or specially-designated quarters, they were asked to stay home until the danger of passing on the illness had passed (normally, if symptoms do not appear within 14 days of contact with an infected person, it means that the quarantined people did not catch the illness and need no longer isolate themselves).

People can be told to stay home, but what happens if they feel tempted to make a quick trip to the shops, or meet up with relatives for dinner? Without a police watch on everyone, it is hard to stop such behavior.

An April 16 Bloomberg News report suggested that a way had been found: quarantined individuals could be electronically tagged. Shamim Adam writes that Singapore's Ministry of Health ordered tagging devices from an Israeli company known as Dmatek Ltd. Dmatek reportedly makes them to monitor prisoners released on furlough.

John Gee is a free-lance journalist based in Singapore and the author of Unequal Conflict: Israel and the Palestinians, available from the AET Book Club.