Israel Set to Reduce Amount African Migrant Workers Must Pay State in Controversial Program

Asylum seekers will pay 16.5 percent of salary, instead of current 20 percent, if Knesset approves ministers’ proposal, while employers will deposit 12.5 percent; migrants, human rights groups and restaurateurs want program scrapping

African asylum seekers at a detention facility in southern Israel.
Daniel Bar-On

The government is planning to reduce the amount of money African migrant workers have to deposit into a controversial fund every month while they seek asylum in Israel.

Finance Minister Moshe Kahlon and Labor Minister Haim Katz signed a directive last week that reduces the amount that both asylum seekers and their employers must pay into the fund. These funds can only be withdrawn when the migrants leave Israel.

The law, which came into effect in May, initially required asylum seekers to deposit 20 percent of their earnings, with employers required to add a further 16 percent. Under pressure from hoteliers and restaurateurs, who employ many asylum seekers, Kahlon and Katz decided to reduce this to the minimum stipulated by law – 16.5 and 12.5 percent, respectively.

The law authorizes the finance and labor ministers to reduce these amounts in consultation with the interior minister and after approval by the Knesset Labor, Welfare and Health Committee. Kahlon and Katz sought Interior Minister Arye Dery’s approval, and the matter will now go to the Knesset panel for final approval.

Human rights organizations warned that the law would unreasonably harm asylum seekers, who have a hard time making ends meet anyway. Members of the hotel and restaurant business, meanwhile, warned that the law could result in the collapse of their businesses.

Last week, asylum seekers, employers and human right activists protested in Tel Aviv against the obligation to pay into these funds.

“The proposed reduction is meant to make it easier for the migrants, who earn minimal wages and for whom this obligation poses great financial hardship – especially when they are single parents or have family members with special needs,” Kahlon and Katz wrote to Dery.

“The ruling is aimed at this group but it’s hard to determine who belongs to it, so we want a reduction in deposit requirements for everyone,” they added.

Shai Berman, head of the Restaurants, Bars and Cafés Association, welcomed the decision, but said he would be fighting to completely abolish the requirement.

“The demand that we as employers put our hands in employees’ pockets is unreasonable,” he said, saying his association has asked to be added to a petition filed at the High Court of Justice by human rights groups.

“We’re asked to do something we can’t do, something unprecedented: to take such a big chunk out of their wages. We already see chaos unfolding,” added Berman. “Many employees come asking for under-the-table payments.”

He noted that some employers had raised their wages so as not to harm the workers. “The state, which so wishes that [the migrants] didn’t work, did not provide an alternative. They have none, and no one else will take these jobs,” he added.

The Knesset approved the deposit fund system in December 2014, as part of a third amendment to the Anti-Infiltration Law. The fund was supposed to start six months after the finance minister published a directive for establishing it. But this did not happen until January, when the Knesset decided that the deposits would finally commence in May.

During the legislative process, the Population, Immigration and Border Authority (part of the Interior Ministry) said the amended law was designed to make the employment of asylum seekers more expensive, in order to provide an incentive for them to leave Israel. (The state cannot deport asylum seekers back to their country of origin if it would endanger their lives.) Israel can confiscate a large part of these deposits if asylum seekers do not leave at a specified time.

Human rights groups have appealed the law in the High Court, arguing that it would drive asylum seekers to poverty under the pretext of providing social benefits. An appeal for a stay was denied, and the case will be heard next month.