Rights Groups Up in Arms Over 'Modern Slavery' Law

Knesset enacts a law that severely restricts migrants working in home nursing care to specific areas of the country. It also lets them switch employers only three times.

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Three days after the Knesset enacted a law that severely restricts labor migrants' ability to change jobs, the outcry against it is growing.

"The law will make the workers into slaves with no rights," was the common refrain among human rights organizations. Similar statements could be heard from opposition MKs.

The law restricts migrants working in home nursing care to specific areas of the country. It also lets them switch employers only three times.

"The law is meant to deal with a painful and problematic situation in which foreign workers brought to this country to nurse patients in need of difficult care then abandon their charges because of the difficulty of working with them, leaving the patients with no possibility of care," said Knesset Interior Committee chairman MK David Azoulay (Shas ).

To prevent labor migrants from working in professions where employing foreign workers is illegal, the law also allows the interior minister to designate a specific field of employment on each migrant's visa and permit. He may then revoke the visa and permit if a foreign worker has not worked in the specified field for more than 90 days without reasonable justification.

MK Meir Sheetrit (Kadima ) explained why he supported the law: "There are nearly 100,000 illegal labor migrants in Israel. Most of them came here [to work] in nursing care, fled from their charges and are doing housework and all kinds of illegal jobs. It's not pleasant to care for a handicapped person; it's downright difficult. So it's necessary to tell that worker, 'Sir, you came to look after a handicapped person. You don't want to? Go back to your own country.'"

But MK Dov Khenin (Hadash ) called the law "a modern version of slavery." The Knesset, he charged, "always looks for the guilty in the most convenient and easiest place - among foreigners, among the minority, in this case among labor migrants. Look, we've found the ones responsible for causing all the problems; all the difficulties occur because of them. And only if we, as a state, learn how to be tougher with them will we be able to solve the problems. But this approach is a mistaken and unacceptable."

The law's opponents argue that the government should improve the system not by passing what they term draconian laws, but by bolstering ties among the welfare authorities, the care-givers and the patients.

"The key to proper care for the elderly and nursing-care patients is a progressive welfare policy," said MK Nitzan Horowitz (Meretz ).

"You don't rectify an injustice by creating a new injustice," added MK Zahava Gal-On (Meretz ).

Human rights organizations also slammed the law, saying it violates a 2006 Supreme Court ruling that deemed restricting migrant workers to a specific employer "a kind of modern-day slavery."

"Nearly 150 years after the United States abolished slavery, the State of Israel is about to enact it into law," said attorney Oded Peled of the Association for Civil Rights in Israel. "A law binding labor migrants to their employers and making it hard for them to change employers will transform migrant workers into slaves with no rights."

Attorney Hani Ben-Yisrael of Kav LaOved (Worker's Hotline ) concurred. "The law violates the most basic rights of female labor migrants, who in the nature of things are more vulnerable to violence and sexual exploitation by their employers," she said.

Several prominent jurists, among them Israel Prize laureate Prof. Amnon Rubinstein and former Attorney General Michael Ben-Yair, also opposed the law, and had tried unsuccessfully to get Knesset Speaker Reuven Rivlin to block the vote.



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