Israel Aims to Drive Africans Out by Squeezing Their Employers

Strategy is to deter hiring of asylum-seekers with prohibitive fees on businesses.

Ilan Lior
Ilan Lior
Thousands of African asylum seekers in Tel Aviv during protest against government policy.
Thousands of African asylum seekers in Tel Aviv during protest against government policy.Credit: AFP
Ilan Lior
Ilan Lior

Employers of African asylum-seekers will soon be required to pay exorbitant fees under a new government plan aimed at drying up these jobs and thus inducing the Eritrean and Sudanese “infiltrators,” as the government calls them, to leave the country. The plan was initiated by the Prime Minister’s Office as well as the ministries of Interior, Justice and Finance.

Last week the Interior Ministry published a memorandum labeled a “proposal to prevent infiltration and encourage asylum seekers and foreign workers to leave Israel”. The memorandum includes an amendment to the law dealing with foreign workers, designating a new fund to be established for their benefit. The money deposited there will only become available to them on departure.

The memorandum stipulates that employers deposit 20% of employee salaries into this fund. In addition employers will have to deposit an additional 20% out of their own pockets, which is twice as high as the amounts deposited by employers of other workers in this country. For most employees, these funds go towards pensions and severance payments. Thus, 40% of asylum seekers’ salaries will be deposited monthly in this fund. They will receive the cash only when they leave Israel. “This amendment is designed to improve the social benefits of foreign workers, including ones who came here illegally. It is meant to encourage foreign workers to leave at the end of their term of employment and to coax illegal workers to leave”, states the memorandum.

This deposit is an addition to the levy imposed on those hiring asylum seekers, as determined in the Economic Arrangements Law which accompanies the annual state budget. This levy will be higher than the one paid by employers of foreign workers who do have a work permit. In most jobs such as in restaurants, hotels and cleaning, employers will have to pay the state a levy of 30% of the asylum seeker’s salary, as opposed to 20% in the case of legal workers. The law stipulates that this levy cannot be deducted from the employee’s wages.

Until now, employers of asylum seekers paid the same amount as those of legal workers. Collecting the levy was done in a haphazard manner with little enforcement of the law. Many employers were unaware of the levy. According to the current law, employers must pay 11.66% of asylum seekers’ salaries towards pension or compensation (going up to 12.5% in 2015), as they do with any other employee in Israel. Many have refrained from doing so, with very little enforcement of the law. At most, employers added amounts equaling 11.5% of the salary as benefits, on top of the salary. Now they will have to add 50% as additional payments.

Employers up in arms

Employers are furious at having to pay more for employing asylum seekers. “There’s a glass ceiling to how much we can pay a cleaner. The restaurant business is barely profitable,” said Shai Berman, head of the Restaurants and Bars Association, which employs 10,000 asylum seekers.

Berman said the government is trying to make asylum seekers’ lives miserable at the expense of their employers. “We don’t employ them out of humanitarian considerations but because there are no alternatives in Israel’s labor market who will take these jobs. No one will take on a bathroom cleaning job or dive into pots and pans. This whole concept of making their lives difficult has not and will not work. It will be disastrous if they start roaming the streets. The government is taking populist measures instead of letting them contribute and spread out beyond southern Tel Aviv.”

“I’m fine with a central state-managed fund for them, but why 20% each from employee and employer? That’s not clear,” says Yoav Bachar, deputy director of personnel at the Hoteliers Association. Estimating that 3,000 to 4,000 asylum seekers work in the hotel industry, he said the newly proposed levy is scandalous.

The chair of the Knesset Committee for Foreign Worker, MK Michal Rozin (Meretz), opposes the new levy, but supports the plan for employers to deposit money into a central fund: “Depositing such funds for social and health benefits for asylum seekers will grant the state a safety net for them while they are here. This could be an inducement for them to leave as soon as they can. This is what I called on the government to do instead of imposing an illogical levy. Forcing employers to make both payments is unreasonable and immoral, both for employers who are clamoring for workers and for the asylum seekers, as well as for residents of southern Tel Aviv who pay the price for keeping asylum seekers unemployed.”

“The people formulating these laws are acting unreasonably, in a manner that will increase the distress of southern Tel Aviv,” added attorney Oded Feller, who is in charge of migration and legal status cases for the Association for Civil Rights in Israel. “The situation in the southern neighborhoods of Tel Aviv and the need to disperse asylum seekers and share the burden necessitate an urgent adoption of incentives for employing asylum seekers throughout the country, including in areas in which foreign workers are brought in anyway. Erecting barriers to their employment with these levies and deposits could expand the number of poor and unemployed asylum seekers, who will then have to be supported by the community. Policy makers [unfortunately] cannot rid themselves of the concept that the worse it is for asylum seekers, the better off the rest of us will be.”

According to the Population and Immigration Authority, there are currently 43,000 asylum seekers from Eritrea and Sudan in Israel, most of whom hold temporary residence permits that specify that they are not work permits. The state has made a commitment to the courts that it will not enforce this stipulation so that they can sustain themselves as long as they cannot be expelled.

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