African Migrants End Strike, Citing Threats to Jobs

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The leaders of the African migrants' protest announced Sunday evening that the strike would end Monday, with most of the Africans living in Israel returning to work. The decision was made over concerns for the workers’ livelihoods and their ability to support their families. The protest, however, was expected to resume Wednesday.

Tens of thousands of African migrants participated in the strike that began Sunday of last week in protest of government policy. The strikers demanded that the new addition to the Anti-Infiltration Law be nullified, that the police cease arresting migrants, that those being held under the new law be released, and that the government reexamine the requests for asylum filed by Eritreans and Sudanese. The strike drastically affected many businesses, primarily restaurants, cafes, hotels and cleaning services.

“We ended the strike, but the struggle continues,” said Sudanese national and strike leader Mutasim Ali last night. “We’re cooperating with businesses. They said, ‘We support you, but help us too.’ So we said that whoever wants to, should go back to work and help out.”

Ali said the decision was made to freeze protest activities for a few days out of respect for the death of Ariel Sharon. A large protest of African and Israeli women and their children, which had been scheduled for Saturday, the day Sharon died, is expected to be held on Wednesday. The women and their children will march from Levinsky Park, next to the Tel Aviv central bus station, to the home of Interior Minister Gideon Sa’ar. On Monday, organizers will begin circulating asylum request forms, but it has yet to be decided if the forms will be submitted to the Interior Ministry or the United Nations refugee office.

The Worker’s Hotline organization received dozens of complaints on Sunday from African workers whose employers refused to take them on again after the strike, as well as workers whose on-the-job conditions were harmed. “A group of workers came to our offices, and we also got phone calls from workers in Eilat who were told not to come back, and that their strike was seen as quitting without notice.

There were two accounts of workers given ultimatums – either agree to change their employment conditions for the worse, or quit without getting severance pay or notice,” said Noah Kaufman, coordinator for refugees and asylum seekers at Workers’ Hotline. “We will try and negotiate with these employers, to get them back to work. These people did not want to leave their jobs, they went on strike,” he said.

Attorney Michal Tadjer, legal adviser for the Workers’ Hotline, says that the organization is considering legal action to combat the firings. “Employers cannot exploit the asylum seekers’ suffering to worsen their terms of employment. They are using this as a means to threaten their workers. In essence, they’re saying, ‘We can fire you, so either you quit or we take away your seniority, worsen your conditions,’ or lots of other things. Employers are using this for exploitation,” said Tadjer.

According to the attorney, “The legal question is how much the strike was protected. Although they are unorganized workers, there is an umbrella organization that declared this strike, and there have been precedents in Europe in which sectors of the population went on strike in protest against the government, when policy directly harmed individuals. This strike is a political strike, and it might be that it is supported by law, but it hasn’t come up for legal review. We think that firing workers after a week-long strike against a law that harms the most basic thing – their freedom and ability to work – is an act committed in bad faith.”

Yesterday there was a long line outside government offices in Tel Aviv, where African migrants must go to renew their temporary residence permits. Emanuel, an Eritrean citizen and one of the strike leaders, was on line for the third time to renew his permit, which expired three weeks ago. So far he has been unable to get into the office.

“I had an appointment, and the first security guard passed me through. The second one said, ‘You’re leading all of the protests and strikes, you were interviewed on Channel 2, I’ll show you.’ He tore up the slip, and said, ‘Go home,’ and began to scream at me.”

Emanuel, 34, has been living in Israel for six years, and waited in line with his spouse and their daughter. After the media approached the Immigration and Population authority regarding his case, a representative offered him an appointment for next week, but he refused to accept the piece of paper. “I found myself in Eritrea today,” Emanuel told Haaretz. “If they start to threaten me, why should I take a number? I said that I won’t take a number for a fourth time. I fled Eritrea because they told me these things – you won’t speak out against the government, you won’t ask questions. And here, they’re starting to tell me not to speak on television, not to lead a strike, or protest? I’m fighting the government against its new law, and I won’t stop. What will be, will be.”

The Immigration and Population Authority stated in response that the guard who dealt with Emanuel was not an authority employee, but a security guard employed by the government office complex. “Emanuel went to the office in Tel Aviv to renew is permit along with many other infiltrators who are hurrying to renew their permits now, because they failed to do so in recent months, like they were asked to. In order to deal with the large number of people attempting to renew permits, Emanuel was told that he could return next Sunday to renew his permit. Emanuel refused to accept the notice with an appointment date for next week, which includes a notice to allow him to reside in Israel without a permit until that date,” said the authority.

The government complex administration denied that it employed the security guard who confronted Emanuel, saying the man is employed by the Immigration and Population Authority.

African migrants at a protest march in Tel Aviv's Rabin Square, Jan. 2014.Credit: David Bachar

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