Israel's Largest Labor Federation Fails to Accept Refugees' Applications

The Histadrut says asylum seekers cannot join because they lack work permits, even though the rules make them eligible. It initially claimed there was a technical obstacle to accepting their applications

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Refugees protest in Herzliya, Israel, in April 2018.
Refugees protest in Herzliya, Israel, in April 2018. Credit: Moti Milrod
Or Kashti
Or Kashti

Israel's Histadrut labor federation has failed to accept applications by some 30 Sudanese refugees seeking to join. According to the Histadrut's rules, any citizen, resident or migrant worker who is employed in Israel can join the country's largest labor federation.

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According to social activists working with refugees , the fact that the  government agreed in the High Court of Justice not to enforce the prohibition on employing asylum seekers means that theyh have the right to work. Some in the Histadrut, however, say that the reason for the rejection, which has yet to be officially issued, is that the refugees lack a work permit. It was initially claimed that the reason was technical: the Histadrut's electronic database only recognizes those with Israeli identification cards.

Togod Omer, a 32-year-old from Sudan who has lived in Israel for seven years, is among the group seeking to join the Histadrut."Regardless of our status in the country, we all work and are exposed to exploitation," he says. "If we ask for vacation, if we happen to get sick, if we raise the possibility of overtime or additional hours or other rights – the employers immediately threaten dismissal, and many times they follow through. The problem is that not only do we not know what our rights are, but there is also no one to protect us. I am not sure that they will stop exploiting us when we are in the Histadrut, but maybe it will be a bit more difficult."

Some 35,000 asylum seekers live in Israel, over 90 percent of them from Sudan and Eritrea. Following a petition submitted to the High Court of Justice, employers may hire any who have residence permits, even though their residence permits say otherwise.

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One refugee told Haaretz that employers deleted his start date and made it appear that he was a new employee. He said he has never been reimbursed for transportation and has never received sick or vacation days. His salary does not reflect the actual hours he works, he added.

Another was fired from his job cleaning offices in Tel Aviv after he took part in a protest by asylum seekers. A third said he waited for months to receive his payment from the building contractor who employed him. Some told of friends who sustained injuries at work and were fired soon thereafter, without receiving their full salary.

About three months ago, social activists began working to help asylum seekers join the Histadrut. A few dozen asylum seekers, all regularly working and receiving pay slips, expressed interest. About 30 filled out the necessary paperwork, using their passport number in lieu of a national ID number. Weeks passed without the applicants receiving approval or rejection. An employee in the Histadrut told activist Yuval Halperin that the labor federation wishes to let the refugees join but that its system only reads national ID numbers.

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