Akbarat, an asylum seeker from Eritrea, worked as an office cleaner in Bnei Brak for 9 months. She was employed by Eldan, a company providing cleaning and maintenance services. She cleaned offices six days a week, working long hours: from 7 A.M. to 5 P.M. Sundays to Thursdays, and from 7 A.M. till noon on Fridays. “I always work hard in order to feed my children, paying for food and bills” she told Haaretz. “I can’t make ends meet even when I work overtime as much as I can.”
During that period, her net wages were between 3,600 and 5,000 shekels ($1055-$1465) a month. One thousand shekels were deducted due to a clause requiring employers of asylum seekers to deposit 20 percent of their wages in a designated fund operated by the Population and Immigration Authority. This money was supposed to be returned only upon their departure from Israel.
In April, the High Court of Justice determined that this was unconstitutional and rescinded the clause, instructing the government to return the money in this fund to asylum seekers within 30 days. Hundreds of them, including Akbarat, tried to find out how they could receive their money, only to discover that their employers never deposited the money they deducted, keeping it for themselves.
The Labor Ministry said that only 60 cases had been opened in this matter, with sanctions taken against only 30 employers, who were fined a combined total of 580,000 shekels. In five cases, criminal proceedings were launched against employers, with only one indictment filed so far. The Population and Immigration Authority says that addressing this issue is under the jurisdiction of the Labor Ministry.
Kav LaOved, an organization that helps asylum seekers, is now trying to help them retrieve this money. They are assisting 1,250 asylum seekers from Sudan and Eritrea whose pay stubs indicate that 20 percent of their wages were transferred to this fund, while inquiries showed that none or only some of this money was in fact deposited. An estimated tens to hundreds of millions of shekels were stolen this way. Population and Immigration Authority figures show that only 385 out of 31,457 adult asylum seekers had all the money deposited as stipulated. Around 21,000 had at least one deposit made, whereas 6,000 had deposits made over six months or less.
It turns out that 36 percent of the asylum seekers had no deposits made during the three years the clause was in effect. By July 1, around 14,000 asylum seekers received their money back – a total of 200 million shekels. The state does not know the number of people who worked during that period or whether employers deposited money in the designated fund. Kav LaOved says that many asylum seekers cannot read their stubs and were unaware that the money had not been deposited.
“For three years we filed complaints and submitted documents relating to the unprecedented theft taking place under the aegis of this law,” says Noa Kaufman, coordinator of refugee and asylum seeker workers at Kav LaOved. “The state established and managed this fund, and even though the Immigration Authority is in touch with the employees, who have to present their stubs when renewing their visas, there was no monitoring of the depositing of deducted wages.”
Kaufman says that many asylum seekers never checked their accounts, which are managed by the Population Authority, making it difficult to access them. Many, based on their pay stubs, assumed that the Population Authority had received the deposits.
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Akbarat was helped by a volunteer lawyer and sued Eldan in a labor court, which instructed the company to pay her over 12,000 shekels. “It broke my heart that they took money I’d worked so hard for. I need it to survive,” she said. Even after 30 days, Eldan has not returned her money or responded to calls from Haaretz.
P. worked at a Herzliya restaurant for years, and tens of thousands of shekels were deducted from his wages in accordance to the law. When he tried to get this money after the clause was rescinded, he discovered that his account was empty. “They made fun of me because I’m black and couldn’t read the stub. I thought I could now pay rent but discovered I had nothing,” he says.
Kav LaOved is trying to help him retrieve his money, but this will probably be more difficult now, since many of the employers were hit hard by the coronavirus crisis. “Sometimes the employer is no longer there or has ceased operations. The funds owed asylum seekers are part of employers’ deficits,” says Kaufman.
Another worker who discovered there was no money in her fund asked her employer to return her money, but they kept putting off her request. She had no choice but to continue working. In her second job, another employer also did not deposit the required funds.
The missing money is another facet of the coronavirus crisis hitting vulnerable populations. Like many others, large numbers of asylum seekers are now without work, but as opposed to Israeli citizens, they are not entitled to unemployment benefits, severance pay or national health coverage. There has been a spike in those requiring food and clothing donations as well as other basic necessities.
The Population and Immigration Authority said that dealing with this problem is not within their purview, but falls under the responsibility of the Labor Ministry. The paltry fines imposed on employers who were caught attest to the way this is being handled. The ministry says that the only recourse employees have is to file civil suits against their employers. “Companies exploit the vulnerability of these employees in order to systematically violate their rights,” says attorney Efraim Itzhakov, who represented Akbarat.
Kav LaOved says the state must find a solution, and proposes that the state compensate workers who failed to get their money back, and that it represent them in court at no cost.