The Histadrut labor federation's executive voted yesterday to accept migrant workers into the group as full members. The decision will require the organization to amend its bylaws, which currently permit membership only to Israeli citizens and permanent or temporary residents.

The new policy will enable the Histadrut to unionize industries and companies that employ a high percentage of foreign workers, such as construction, agriculture and food service. Additionally, migrant workers will now be able to join existing unions, enabling these unions to represent them in disputes with employers, ensure that their rights are not violated and negotiate better wages and benefits for them.

Until now, the Histadrut has granted only limited service to migrant workers - for instance, advice on how to handle problems with Israeli employers - and only in the greater Tel Aviv area. Thus the migrants relied mainly on nonprofit organizations such as the Kav La'oved workers' hotline for assistance.

The driving force behind yesterday's decision was Histadrut chairman Ofer Eini, whom associates said was shocked to discover that the organization's bylaws did not permit it to unionize migrants. They also noted that for years, the Histadrut has been criticized by both its European counterparts and international human rights groups over its failure to represent migrant workers - considered the most maltreated employees in Israel - even though international conventions required it to do so.

Some 250,000 migrants work legally in Israel, and another 150,000 are thought to work here illegally. Since every worker who joins the Histadrut pays dues equivalent to 0.9 percent of his salary, the change could potentially put millions of shekels into the organization's coffers. But Histadrut officials insisted that the motive was not money, but a desire to protect these workers' rights.

Two factions in the Histadrut's executive opposed yesterday's decision - Shas and Oz, a faction founded by Likud MK Haim Katz. They argued that the decision would encourage migrant workers to stay in Israel.

It also puts Eini on a collision course with many members of the government, and particularly Finance Minister Yuval Steinitz, who wants to reduce the number of migrant workers: The decision explicitly opposed deporting migrant workers with children, whereas many ministers argue that the existence of offspring is not grounds for allowing illegal migrants to stay.