Bulgarian Officials Here to Probe Reports of Violence Against Foreign Workers

A delegation of officials from Bulgaria's Foreign and Labor Ministries today begins investigating the reports of violence against Bulgarian workers employed in Israel.

A delegation of officials from Bulgaria's Foreign and Labor Ministries today begins investigating the reports of violence against Bulgarian workers employed in Israel.

The delegation is due to meet with contractor Yitzhak Tsarfati, with Bulgarian construction workers, Israeli Foreign Ministry representatives and diplomats from the Bulgarian embassy in order to investigate its handling of complaints.

Yesterday, with the assistance of the Kav L'Oved hotline for foreign workers, four Bulgarians employed by Tsarfati lodged a complaint with police in Lod for alleged violence against them by the company's Bulgarian foremen.

Complaints have been piling up since April, 2000, when a Bulgarian citizen showed up at Bulgaria's embassy in Tel Aviv with signs of violence on his body. He told the Ambassador, Prof. Tsanko Yablonski, that he had been beaten by people sent by his employer, manpower contractor Yitzhak Tsarfati. A month later information came into the Bulgarian embassy about a Bulgarian worker who had hung himself at the central housing compound of the Y. Tsarfati company in Lod.

His friends related that before the suicide, he had been "beaten to a pulp" by some of the work overseers at the site. In an interview to a Bulgarian television network, worker Petko Semeyonov, who ran away from Tsarfati two years ago, wept as he recalled his friend "Stepcho," who committed suicideand related: "I told him he had to be strong for the children. I told him that he was a strong fellow and he had no right to do a thing like that."

The ambassador recalled these events abut two weeks ago when he read an article in Haaretz (English Edition, January 23, 2003) about workers of the Tsarfati company who complained that they were systematically subjected to harsh violence at the hands of the company's work supervisors. Among other things, that article reported on the complaint that MK Yuri Stern (National Union), who had been chairman of the Knesset committee on foreign workers, had submitted to the commander of the immigration police, Police Maj. General Yaakov Ganot. "According to the reports," wrote Stern, "there is severe abuse - Bulgarian toughs beat workers with fists and blunt instruments, kicking their heads until they bleed, breaking ribs and arms and legs." Stern noted: "It has been alleged that he (Tsarfati) imposes a reign of terror intended to prevent them from running away from him."

At the time, related the Bulgarian ambassador, he invited Tsarfati for a talk at the embassy and asked him about the bruised worker who had come in to the legation and about the suicide. Yablonski also went to visit the dormitory compound in Lod himself, spoke with the workers and sent a report on the affair to the Foreign Ministry in Bulgaria. Since then the embassy has received reports of additional cases of violence toward workers, but according to the ambassador, he had no real information and he believed that his conversation with Tsarfati had solved the problem.

Last week the Bulgarian ambassador summoned Tsarfati again to ask him about the reports while the Bulgarian consul contacted the Ministry of Foreign Affairs and brought up the subject. However, from conversations with people at the embassy, it appears that alongside a desire to protect their citizens, they are concerned that a protest could damage diplomatic relations with Israel.

Yesterday MK Ran Cohen of Meretz asked the police to investigate "many more reports of appalling acts of violence against workers that have been revealed in Bulgarian media as well as other testimonies that have been documented and recorded by Haaretz. Among other things," writes Cohen, "workers say that one Bulgarian worker committed suicide after, according to them, `he was beaten to a pulp.' This is a grave offense to human dignity that is stirring up a harsh reaction in Bulgaria. I request that you embark on an urgent investigation so that these appalling deeds will not remain unpunished."

They would put my wife on the street The complaints of violence reported in the Haaretz article received a great deal of public attention in Bulgaria after they were reported from Israel by a correspondent for Radio Net, the largest commercial radio network in Bulgaria. The reports also loosened the tongues of workers who until then had refused to identify themselves or turn to the police for fear that ill would befall them or their families.

From conversations with workers, it emerges that the aim of the violence is primarily to prevent workers from "running away" from the contractors with which the Tsarfati company does business. The company promises its clients that the workers it provides do not run away, as opposed to the workers of other manpower companies. Tsarfati even promises compensation of up to $5,000 to a contractor if one of his workers runs away. According to the reports, the violence is done by work supervisors who are themselves workers brought here from Bulgaria.

"When I arrived here, they told me that if I ran away, they would make my wife go out to the main road where the prostitutes work," related one worker in a report by Victoria Behar of the BTV network. "There's no time off on Friday, no time off on Saturday. We work all the time. They compel us to keep quiet. There are many methods. Beatings, a lot of beatings, humiliations," said the worker.

Grigorev recalled that right at the airport a representative of the company who met them there told them that "if we caused any problems, they would break our legs." Grigorev, a crane operator by trade, said that twice they deducted $100 from his salary, once because he asked to meet with a lawyer in order to find out what his rights are and once because he went to work in the evening at another place after he finished his work for the contractor.

A few months ago Grigorev left the compound where he lives in Tel Baruch to buy bread. "They said that I had left without permission, and that they would dock me $25. Then B. and C. and S. (who work for Tsarfati) came and beat me up - B. walloped me with a board on my ribs and someone else socked me in the face with his fists."

Santimir Vaglanov, an investigative reporter for the mass circulation newspaper "24 Hours," also came to Israel following the report in Haaretz and MK Stern's complaint. Two weeks earlier, his newspaper had run a front page story about a worker who had returned to Bulgaria after having worked for Tsarfati and described the violence and the harsh living conditions. "There are Bulgarian workers all over the world, and many of them live in conditions that are not good. But nowhere is the situation like it is here, with violence and suicide," says Vaglanov.

Bloodied clothing The way the workers describe how they are treated is chilling - their faces are expressionless and their voices a monotone - reflecting a kind of submission to shocking routine. "There was a holiday and we didn't work that day. But at night they came and woke us up, took us out one by one and beat us," related one worker in the BTV report. "Each of us waited in turn for them to beat us," he said. "For five months after that my bones ached."

A skinny worker named Alchek Radaf told Haaretz that three months ago he was transferred from one site to another and because of the transfer he did not have time to eat any lunch. Therefore, as they were loading equipment onto a vehicle, he ate a piece of bread. "C., who was in charge of us, came out and started yelling at me for eating. He took me to a caravan, put me in the bathroom and started beating me with his fists. I doubled over to escape the blows and then he took out other keys of the Magnum (a kind of 4X4 vehicle) and beat me on the back with it until the key bent out of shape and my shirt was full of blood," related Radaf, taking off his shirt to show the scars that remain on his upper back. "All the guys were standing outside but no one dared say a word. After that we got into the vehicle and C. saw that the key was broken so he said they would fine me $50, because I had broken the key. They really did take $50 off my wages."

A worker who worked last year on a construction project at Bar-Ilan University related in an interview to Haaretz that when the workers were taken to the caravans where they were housed on the work site, they discovered that they had not been provided with blankets so they went to look for blankets in student dormitory rooms. Someone called the police. "The police didn't beat us but afterward, Tsarfati's people made us do push-ups as punishment," related the man, whose name is known to Haaretz. "Sometimes they beat us in private and sometimes in front of everybody. They hit us with their fists, with whatever they find, even wooden poles. There's no one to complain to. We work from morning till night."

One of the few interviewees who deviated from the monotone reporting style was Petko Semeyonov, who ran away from Tsarfati about two years ago. Semeyonov wept as he told Haaretz how people sent by Tsarfati found him in a restaurant in Jaffa, forced him onto a vehicle that took him to the company's offices in Rishon Letzion and beat him until his clothing was all bloodied. In that conversation, he begged to remain anonymous. Now, in the BTV interview, he decided to come forward by name and repeated his account.

Tsarfati's people say that the violence occurs during drunken quarrels among the workers themselves. The BTV correspondent relates that during the course of her visit in Israel, she had an urgent call from a representative of the company to come immediately to the living compound in Lod to see such a brawl. When she arrived, she related, she realized that a show had been prepared for her. She said that the face of one of the purported brawlers had been smeared with rouge to look like blood, but when she spoke to him privately, the man told her that there had not been a fight.

Another worker, Mustafa Minmun, told the "24 Hours" reporter that in August, 2002, he had a terrible earache and a doctor recommended that he go the emergency room. But his immediate supervisor, P., refused to allow him to go to the hospital and after three days of agony he finally turned to P.'s boss. When P. found out about this, related Minmun, he kicked him hard. The reporter related this to Tsarfati, who promised to look into it and fire P. It is not clear whether P. has been fired.

A worker named Sazgin Bakri told the BTV reporter that "the conditions are inhumane. Even animals don't live like this. For four months we didn't get our wages. Last summer they put us into caravans, in rooms that measured two by three meters, with three beds. We have to take turns sleeping because there was no room."

They hope to be deported

A worker who was interviewed for the report by Victoria Behar of BTV said something that is most unusual for a foreign worker: "I'm waiting in anticipation for the police to catch me and put me in jail so I can go back to Bulgaria." He and other workers related that because of the terrible conditions and the violence, they wanted to go back to Bulgaria, but the Tsarfati company refused to give them their passports and plane tickets, even if they had completed the period of their contract in Israel.

The situation has grown especially bad during the past few months because of the shortage of construction workers that has been created by the prohibition the government has imposed on the entry for foreign workers not Israel. To provide contractors with working hands, the state has implemented a "sealed skies" procedure, whereby workers who are arrested for illegal residence are offered legal status for two years and work in construction.

Seventeen of Tsarfati's workers who were arrested about 10 days ago in Be'er Sheva were also offered this sort of "laundering." The Bulgarians are considered especially good workers in the field of construction scaffolding and all 17 of them were included in the offer, but all of them refused. It turned out that the group had not been paid their wages for four months, and all they wanted was to get the money and go home.

Following the intervention of the Bulgarian consul and the Kav L'Oved (Workers' Hotline) organization, and after visits to the jail by Bulgarian reporters, a representative of the Tsarfati company came and paid the workers what they were owed - a total of nearly $70,000.

Some of the workers say that they have not been paid their wages for two or three months and that regularly they receive tens of dollars less than what they calculate that they are owed.

As the residence permits for several of them have expired but the company does not want to send them home, recently the company has been hiding them from the immigration police. "They get us out of bed at 3:30 in the morning and put us into a minibus because they know that the police raid at 4 A.M. We sleep in the car until we start work," related worker Vassil Vessev.

Investigation of extortion

Despite the reports of violence that have reached both the Bulgarian embassy in Israel and the Israel Embassy in Bulgaria, thus far no investigation has been pursued. Recently the immigration police began to check information about extortion through threats in which people from Tsarfati's company are suspected of being involved. And the investigation has been expanded to include the workers' complaints about violence.

Immigration police spokesman Ofer Leffler says that evidence against the manpower contractor is being taken with the aim of examining the possibility of charging him with having instigated the deeds. Justice Ministry sources said last week that a case against Yitzhak Tsarfati that was opened two-and-a-half years ago following a complaint that he had abducted, locked up and beaten four workers was still open. It has not yet been decided whether to file and indictment.

One of the figures at the center of the police investigation is Peter Dimitrov, a veteran work supervisor in Tsarfati's company. Last year the interior minister revoked Dimitrov's Israeli citizenship on the grounds that he had obtained it on the basis of false documents that purported to show his mother was Jewish. Dimitrov appealed, through attorney Moshe Goldberg, and deliberations in his case are slated in March before the High Court of Justice. The police intend to recommend that he be deported from Israel.

Tsarfati has made many efforts to prevent the revoking of Dimitrov's citizenship and has claimed that the move is part of a campaign of attacks on him conducted by Shas activists, whose aim is to wipe out his flourishing business and take control of the import market in foreign workers. The relationship between Tsarfati and Dimitrov is both business and personal, and they often go out together.

Ever since the media interest developed, Tsarfati has been making efforts to improve work conditions, and workers report the crowding has been relieved and renovations and painting done. In a report broadcast n Bulgaria, Tsarfati is seen denying, as he did in a conversation with Haaretz, that there is any violence toward the workers. He explains that he feels an obligation to the Bulgarian people for having saved Jews during World War II. He adds: "Thousands in Bulgaria want to come work for me in Israel. I tell them that they are coming to an inferno. Temperatures of 40 degrees, tents, dust, kamikaze terrorists. Difficult conditions. I tell them that it is like their first month in the army. Bu they answer me that in Bulgaria it's all the pits, too."

Ben-Menachem's only donor

Yitzhak Tsarfati is the registered owner of The Y. Tsarfati Group in Rishon Letzion, among the holdings of which is a company that imports foreign workers for construction and a manpower company for placing Israeli workers. Tsarfati also has a company in Bulgaria that provides services in the construction field.

In the past Tsarfati was a driving instructor and afterward worked at the Ortal manpower company. In 1996, he quit Ortal and started a company of his own, specializing in bringing workers from Bulgaria. His connection to the country is through his father, who is of Bulgarian origin.

Tsarfati is active politically - first he was in the Labor Party, then in the Third Way and today is a member of the Likud. In 1999, he moved with a group from the Third Way into the Labor Party and became a member of the central committee. Among his political acquaintances - Emanuel Zisman, who until recently was the Israeli ambassador to Sofia, MK Avi Yehezkel of the Labor Party, who calls Tsarfati "a close acquaintance," and Labor MK Eli Ben-Menachem, who received a donation from him for the Labor primary race in November. Ben-Menachem says that Tsarfati is a good friend and was the only donor to his election campaign. He says he has never heard anything about the suspicions that his company has been involved in violence.

Last year Tsarfati hosted his Labor friend Yehezkel when he came to Sofia as part of a delegation of MKs to a NATO conference. Ironically, another member of that same delegation was MK Yuri Stern (National Union-Yisrael Beiteinu), formerly chairman of the Knesset committee on foreign workers, who recently turned to the police to investigate complaints of violence done to Tsarfati's workers.

Three years ago a dispute emerged between Tsarfati and the Israeli consul in Sofia, Rom Shibi, during the course of which Tsarfati submitted a complaint to the Foreign Ministry to the effect that Shibi was harming his business. The Foreign Ministry has refused to give any information about the affair. In the earlier report about Tsarfati in Haaretz it was revealed that he was quite at home in the embassy at Sofa and regularly conducted his business from there.

Investigation at the Contractors Association

Tsarfati, whose company is the largest in the field of importing construction workers from Bulgaria, has good connections with politicians and diplomats both in Israel and in Bulgaria. Two clinics with which he is connected recently won an exclusive license from the Health Ministry here to carry out medical exams of Bulgarian workers before they come to Israel.

Initially the Health Ministry gave permits to 10 clinics in Bulgaria. The list was sent in November, 2000, to Israeli manpower contractors by the ministry's head of public heath, Dr. Alex Leventhal. A short time later the list was amended: All 10 approved clinics were gone and replaced by the two associated with Tsarfati.

Leventhal says the clinics were selected by ministry representatives who visited them accompanied by representatives of the Israeli Embassy in Sofia. He had never heard of Tsarfati, Leventhal said. The clinics were selected according to clear criteria, adds Leventhal. However, he also notes the method to which the Health Ministry is committed for approving clinics in countries that send workers to Israel is not to his liking and that it was forced on him by the Economic Arrangements Law.

The Bulgarian workers pay $75 for an examination - nearly the monthly wage of a worker in Bulgaria - of which, it turns out, a representative of the Contractors Association regularly took a certain percentage. At the Contractors Association, they say that the money has never come into the organization's coffers and the internal inspection committee is now investigating where the money has gone.

Meanwhile the contract with the representative has been canceled.

Tsarfati's lawyer: There has been no violence

The negative reports about Yitzhak Tsarfati and the Tsarfati company "are mendacious reports, the source of which has spread them intentionally in order to hurt Tsarfati personally and financially," says Tsarfati's lawyer, attorney Moshe Goldberg. He adds: "Our law firm is now formulating legal claims against everyone who has damaged Mr. Tsarfati and his businesses."

In the matter of the suicide, Goldberg confirms that a worker was found hanged in his room in May, 2000. According to him, contrary to the claims brought by friends of the worker who killed himself, the man had not been beaten prior to his death. The company's investigation found he had been in a state of depression. He was taken to a doctor and complained about sleeplessness. The man was also worried about his wife's suit for a divorce, according to Goldberg.

Since its establishment in 1996, the company has brought approximately 6,000 workers to Israel, says Goldberg, of whom one was run over in September, 1998, 10 days after he had arrived in Israel, another died of systems failure at the Assaf Harofeh Hospital in September, 1999, and a third died of an illness in November, 2002.

Goldberg denies that there has been any violence, including the claims that people have been dragged after cars. He does, however, take care to note that the matter "is not known." As for the worker's complaint that work supervisor C. beat him with a car key, Goldberg says that the individual has not been employed by the company for two years now. Work supervisor B,. to whom a number of cases of violence are attributed, left about a year ago.

Worker Petko Semeyonov has claimed that after he ran away from the company, he was found in a restaurant in Jaffa by people who had been sent Tsarfati and taken by them to the company's offices where he was beaten until his clothes were all bloodied.

Goldberg responds that "the man was brought by us for a one-time placement in 1997 and since then we have had no connection with him."

Mustafa Mimun clamed that he was beaten because of his request to be allowed to see an ear doctor. Goldberg says "the man was treated immediately by an ear, nose and throat doctor through the Shiloah insurance company which insures the company's employees, and there are documents testifying to this in his file.

With regard to the worker Bakri who complained about the living conditions. Goldberg says that "he was brought on a permit from Eppig Engineering. In the framework of the agreement with that company it was not we who provided him with lodging but rather the company, and the man did not live in our dormitory compound."

According to Goldberg: "All the workers are brought here legally on construction contractors' permits and our company does not deal with workers who have come into the country illegally."

He denies the claim that workers are taken away from the living sites before dawn in order to hide them from immigration police raids. However, there is no comment in his response relating to the possibility of permits that have expired.