Israeli Labor Federation Reverses Decision, Allows Asylum Seekers to Join

Last month some 30 refugees applied to join the Histadrut. The labor federation’s convention allows anyone working in Israel to join, but they were stonewalled with various technical excuses

The asylum seekers who requested to join, from left: Togod Omer Adam, Wahid Bacher Youssef, Namer Abkar and Karim Suliman

Togod Omer Adam of Sudan and Takalit Rishahi from Eritrea were the first African refugees admitted to the Histadrut labor federation as full members, after an agreement was reached Wednesday with refugee representatives.

“I’m very happy about the decision. I hope employers will be less quick to fire refugees for requesting a few sick days,” Togod said.

Last month Haaretz reported on the application of some 30 refugees, mainly from Sudan, to join the Histadrut. The labor group’s convention allows anyone working in Israel to join, but they were stonewalled with various technical excuses.

The group appealed to the Histadrut’s tribunal, citing the government’s promise to the High Court of Justice, some years ago, not to enforce the ban on employing asylum seekers.

In that sense their temporary permit gives them the right to work — and to join the Histadrut. The Histadrut claimed the “commitment doesn’t make the employment by the asylum seekers legal,” and that the refugees “don’t meet the conditions for full membership in the Histadrut.”

But the Histadrut changed its position before the hearing in the tribunal Wednesday, saying: “After a reexamination regarding the temporary permit, it turns out that at present, employment of some of the holders of the permit is permitted (referring to the type of permit that doesn’t include a prohibition or restriction regarding work, as opposed to some of the permits given to refugees). The Histadrut promised to accept holders of such permits as members.

Mor Stoller, a lawyer who specializes in employment law, said the Histadrut’s new stance is “a radical change from its initial claim that these are illegal residents and illegal workers that it refuses to accept. The decision reflects a rejection of the discriminating atmosphere that prevented the organization of the asylum seekers and an important step in the direction of trade unions abroad — which are also working to organize refugees.” Stoller added that the workers’ legal status is irrelevant to protecting their rights.

In a recent conversation with Haaretz, Togod and his friends described abuse of their labor rights by employers. “If we ask for time off, if we happened to get sick, if we mention a possibility of payment for overtime or other rights — they threaten dismissal, and often carry it out. The problem is not only that we don’t know our rights, but that there’s nobody to protect us.”

There are some 35,000 asylum seekers living in Israel, over 90 percent from Sudan and Eritrea, whom Israel cannot expel.

Recruitment of the asylum seekers to the Histadrut will soon be renewed. Togod said they had to explain to people what the Histadrut is and why it’s important to join. He hopes that the Histadrut will help them fight laws that are harmful to them. “This is good news,” he said.