Head to Head / Why Are Asylum Seekers Needed in Your Industry?

Interview with Israel Hotel Association chair Shmuel Tzurel

Irit Rosenblum
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Irit Rosenblum

Last week the government decided to change its policy and regard the employment of asylum seekers as illegal, much like the employment of illegal foreign workers, beginning in 2011. Shmuel Tzurel, the head of the Israel Hotel Association, has criticized the decision, which will once again place hotel owners in a situation where there is a lack of workers and no alternatives in sight. The government changes its approach every few years, and each time hotel owners find themselves handicapped anew.

How many refugees work in the hotel business today?

Tzurel. “Without foreign workers, the hotels [in Eilat] will have trouble operating. The 15,000 workers create a livelihood for the 45,000 who earn their living from them.”Credit: Gil Cohen Magen

There are about 1,000 foreign workers right now, mostly in Eilat and at the Dead Sea, some of whom are refugees who are documented as such and therefore allowed to work legally. And then there are people who have infiltrated and then been taken out of shelters in Tel Aviv - at the request of the government, the army and Social Affairs Minister Isaac Herzog - and permitted to work. These infiltrators have permission to stay in Israel. But now, when they go to renew their permits in Jerusalem, a stamp is added saying they may not work.

Is this acceptable to you?

In my opinion this is strange behavior. As a hotel employee, a worker is entitled - according to his contract - to living quarters, health insurance, nursery schools, everything. As soon as these people are forbidden to work - a decision, by the way, which contradicts a court order regarding other workers that says we may not give someone permission to stay in Israel without giving them permission to work - what will he do? He can only become a burden.

From our point of view and that of the state, this is problematic, because firing these workers means putting them out on the street. They will go to Tel Aviv and try to find work there.

Why do you need them?

There are more than 10,000 hotel workers in Eilat in total. The reason we hire these workers, about a thousand, as I said, to wash dishes and to clean, is that the unemployment service is not able to supply workers in these professions. And this is something they openly admit. Their director, Yossi Farhi, says so at every opportunity.

Where are the Israelis? Perhaps you don't pay enough?

We'd be glad to hire Israelis. Just bring them to us. There are 12,000 hotel rooms in Eilat, which is too small of a town for its tourist industry. Workers come from far away to serve the hotels at the Dead Sea, too. There is no alternative to hiring foreigners. And there are no savings through this practice either, because they earn the same as Israelis do. With all the benefits. We simply don't have any other workers.

The ridiculous part is the question of what exactly we'll do with them now - throw them out into the street with the rest of the unemployed?

Despite people's assumption that you can't earn a good living working at hotels, even in these housekeeping jobs workers earn more than minimum wage because of the perks in Eilat - housing, other conditions and shift work. Not to mention that hotels are willing to raise salaries for people who remain on the job more than six months.

The problem is not only in Eilat, but also at the Dead Sea. We bring in workers from Arad, Yeroham and even Be'er Sheva and Bedouin areas, and they still employ foreign workers there. Some employees spend three hours on the road every day [just getting to work].

We're happy to have anyone. There was even talk about having Arabs from the Galilee come work in Eilat. There's a problem here, because Eilat is not in the center of the country. Without any concentrations of population around Eilat, the locals can't meet the need. Everything has to be imported. It's a fact that you don't see this kind of situation in Jerusalem or Mitzpeh Ramon.

Isrotel's Genesis Hotel will soon open in Mitzpeh Ramon, and all of its employees will be locals - but that's because there are only two hotels in the entire town. In large cities you can find a solution, but in Eilat every hotel has dozens of job openings all year that it can't fill."

What has been done over the years to solve the problem?

After the unemployment service admitted that it could not find a solution, we told them to allot us a quota of foreign workers, the way they do in agriculture and construction, according to the rules and regulations. And at one point Eilat had just such a quota, because it doesn't have a pool of workers - there are no students, and no personnel companies.

And then the Uvda program was launched, to remove foreign workers from the hotels [and replace them with Israelis]. Despite the attractions, salaries, perks and what not, it was a big failure with Israelis. The treasury itself admitted it had failed and discontinued the program.

We said, bring us Jordanians. There are contractors who bring in Jordanians in the morning and take them back at night. We'd be happy with any solution. And then the infiltrators came and now the whole story is repeating itself all over again.

Without foreign workers, the hotels will have trouble operating. The 15,000 hotel workers create a livelihood for the 45,000 people who earn their living from them. The hotels take up only 14 percent of the city's built-up land, and pay 36 percent of real estate taxes. There would be no school system without us.

So where does the blame lie?

The main blame falls on the government, which does not solve problems. One hand tells us: I can't supply workers, but you can't hire foreign workers. And another hand asks for help removing the Sudanese from the Tel Aviv shelters - and then after you do that, their work permits are canceled. The worst part is the absence of a clear government policy on this issue.

Meir Sheetrit, when he was interior minister, said we were right and he would recommend that foreign workers be allowed at the hotels. Then [Interior] Minister Eli Yishai arrived and decided that it's not up for discussion. What do they want from us?

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