Israel’s Labor and Social Affairs Minister Itzik Shmuli has rejected proposals to aid asylum seekers in receiving the deposits their employers deducted from their salaries and kept to themselves illegally, Haaretz has learned.
In April, the High Court of Justice struck down the law requiring asylum seekers to deposit 20 percent of their wages into a fund, which they would only receive back when they leave the country. But many asylum seekers discovered that even though their employers had deducted the money from their salaries, they never deposited the money in the fund.
Knesset members Aida Touma-Sliman and Sondos Saleh of the Arab-majority Joint List asked Shmuli to help these workers get their money back. They proposed doing so by allowing the workers to receive the money they are owed directly from the state – and the government would demand the money from the employers – or by providing legal help to enable them to sue their employers.
Shmuli said recently in response that “these are revolutionary proposals with broad consequences, not just for the population of asylum seekers, but also for the population of foreign workers.” Shmuli added that this would have significant costs for the state.
In specific cases it is possible to ask for help from the person in charge of the rights of foreign workers in the ministry in getting employers to fulfill their responsibilities, added Shmuli. This unit has only a small number of employees, who are supposed to provide services to all the foreign workers in Israel.
Today, asylum seekers can demand their deposit back only through a civil lawsuit. Because asylum seekers are one of the poorest groups in Israel, estimates are that over half of them have lost their livelihoods during the coronavirus crisis and are not eligible for government aid or unemployment benefits – meaning they are generally unable to hire a lawyer.
Kav LaOved Hotline for the Protection of Workers’ Rights has been helping asylum seekers receive their deposits back, and are involved in 1,300 cases. In these cases the salary slips say 20 percent of the asylum seeker’s wages were transferred to the deposit fund – but after checking with the Population and Immigration Authority in the Interior Ministry it was discovered that part, or all of the money, was never deposited.
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Noa Kaufman, the coordinator of refugee and asylum seeker workers at Kav LaOved, said thousands of asylum seekers – who from the start are excluded from the welfare system and are not entitled to unemployment benefits – found themselves without work, but the money that was supposed to be returned to them exactly at the time they needed it the most has remained, many times, in the accounts of the businesses that are now collapsing one after another. “In this case, the country’s moral obligation is to at the very least to show responsibility in retrospect and help compensate the workers,” said Kaufman.
The Social Affairs Ministry said the proposal to establish a mechanism that would enable workers to receive their money from the state, which would demand the money later for the employers, and the proposal to provide free legal aid to workers interested in suing their employers are proposals with broad implications with budgetary costs. “Even though the Labor and Social Services Ministry would be happy to provide legal aid to every worker, because this involves budgetary considerations the decision needs to be made by the Finance Ministry.”
The ministry said its regulation and enforcement administration has taken steps to help the asylum seekers, including concerning regulation and revoking the licenses of a number of companies who violated the law and did not transfer the deposits. In terms of enforcement, five new cases have been received since July and are under investigation. Indictments have been filed for not transferring the deposits to the asylum seekers and warnings and financial sanctions have been given to other companies. The ministry said it is possible to turn to the person in charge of the rights of foreign workers in the ministry directly for help in taking action against employers – without being forced to go to court.