Israeli Employers Pocketing Deposits Deducted From Asylum Seekers’ Pay

'The state enacted a law that officially permits the theft of a fifth of the asylum seekers’ wages every month,' says one worker’s rights activist

Asylum seekers protest against the so-called deposit law outside the Supreme Court, Jerusalem, January 26, 2017.
Emil Salman

Most asylum seekers’ employers have not been depositing 20 percent of their salaries into a special account, as the state obliged them to do, to be returned to the migrants when they leave Israel. Thousands found that only part of their money has been deposited in their name, while only 68 have recouped their deposit in full.

The so-called Deposit Law, enacted two years ago, calls for deducting 20 percent of asylum seekers’ monthly wages and depositing them into a state fund. Since then, only 68 refugees – fewer than 0.2 percent – have gotten their deposits back in full, according to the state’s reply filed on Wednesday in the High Court of Justice in response to a petition submitted by Kav La’oved Worker’s Hotline against the law.

Over the past two years, the figures show, employers made partial deposits from the wages of some 17,800 workers – about half of those affected by the law. Some 40 percent found that the deposits made in their name were only for one to six months of work.

Thousands of employers deducted 20 percent of the asylum seekers’ salaries, but failed to deposit the money into the fund set up by the Interior Ministry this purpose. These asylum seekers will not receive their money when they leave Israel, as required by the law.

“The state enacted a law that officially permits the theft of a fifth of the asylum seekers’ wages every month,” one Kav La’oved activist said. “The failure to enforce the law enables the daily robbery of the workers on the lowest rung of society, who have no other social defense than their wages.” Asylum seekers are not eligible to receive social benefits or health insurance.

In its response, the state asked the court to deny the petition, because the law helps to achieve its purpose: encourages asylum seekers to leave the country, since deporting them is prohibited due to the risk to their lives.

“The plan to deport them to third states was thwarted, but Population Authority officials believe that as the law’s implementation continues, the number of infiltrators leaving Israel will grow,” the state’s reply says.

A hearing in 2018 at the High Court of Justice on the deportation of asylum seekers.
Emil Salman

No social benefits

Salem, 26, came to Israel alone in 2012 from Eritrea. She worked as a cleaner for minimum wage and in the middle of 2017 her employer started to deduct 20 percent of her wages, as per the law. Recently she realized her employer hadn’t deposited the money he deducted in the Interior Ministry’s fund, but kept it for himself instead.

Kav La’oved asked Salem’s employer for 5,700 shekels ($1,595) – which constitutes 20 percent of five months’ wages – on her behalf, but to no avail.

“I am a mother of two small children and work very hard every day,” Salem says. “I worked at an old folks’ home for five months, cleaning rooms, washing dishes, making beds and taking care of the elderly. All this while I was pregnant. But my boss there pocketed my money instead of putting it in the fund. I left that place and work cleaning offices now. The money they take from us is money for the children's food, it’s very hard for us just to live.”

“Salem deserves a refund of the money taken from her, it’s critical for a woman raising two children with no social or health benefits,” the Kav La’oved activist said. “She was supposed to get 4,000 shekels back several months ago, but how can she get it when someone in the old folks’ home padded his pockets at Salem’s expense? And the state is doing nothing.”

Mizan, a mother of three, also had money deducted from her wages but not deposited in the fund. She worked in a shopping mall in central Israel. When she found her money wasn’t there, she confronted her employer. “He told me I could leave,” she says.

Now she’s at home taking care of her children. “He owes me money for a year’s work,” she says. “It’s not right. I have nine-month-old twins.”

Since she stopped working, the state has reduced the deduction from women’s wages to six percent. But this did not work out in Mizan’s favor. After Kav La’oved approached her employer, he deposited six percent of her pay in her name, instead of the 20 percent he had deducted – keeping 14 percent to himself. Kav La’oved is considering how to start legal proceedings against him.

“They take the money every month. I don’t have enough to feed my girls, but I have to stay in Israel, because I have no choice,” says a 46-year-old asylum seeker from Eritrea who lives in south Tel Aviv with his wife and two daughters. “It’s not safe in Eritrea and I cannot go back there, so it’s better not to have food than dying. Israelis don’t understand that we want to return home, but can’t. Taking our money won’t help, because we have no choice but to stay here.”

Only six employers fined

Although thousands of workers haven’t had all the money due to them deposited in their name, the state has so far fined only six of the 71 employers who have been investigated. Twenty-six cases were closed after the investigation ended with no findings; 31 received an administrative warning and eight employers are still under investigation.

Kav La’oved activists say dozens of asylum seekers come to their offices monthly with pay slips showing that sums were deducted from their wages but not deposited in the state fund.

In its reply to the High Court of Justice the state wrote “the infiltrators were shown how to follow their deposit online, enabling them to see that the deposit was indeed made, how large the sum was and how much money accumulated in their name so far.”

The state’s figures show that some 40 percent of the asylum seekers whose employers made a partial deposit in their name earn below minimum wage (up to 5,000 shekels a month) before the 20 percent deduction. An additional 5,500 asylum seekers earn between 5,000 and 7,000 shekels a month, but their salaries drop to minimum wage after the deductions.

Last week the U.S. State Department report on human trafficking recommended that Israel revoke the deposit law. The report said the law makes the asylum seekers more prone to fall victim to human trafficking and raises fear that it harms people on the lowest rungs of society.

“Only individual assistance and pressure on the employers has yielded the return of the deducted money,” the Kav La’oved activist said. “This means the state is doing nothing to help the workers, and relies on NGOs to make sure they get their rights. The deposit funds for asylum seekers are not luxury. It’s money for medicine, food and a roof over their heads.”