The prime minister’s adviser on economic affairs is pushing a plan to cut the social benefits of foreign workers in what critics call a violation of the country’s labor laws and international treaties Israel has signed.
The plan, devised by Avi Simhon, chairman of the National Economic Council at the prime minister’s office, would initially free employers of the obligation to pay into employee pension funds and later allow them to pay less than the minimum wage to foreign workers. In the first stage, some 60,000 workers in the caregiving professions would be affected. At a later phase, the cuts would also apply to some 40,000 migrant workers in other fields.
Over the last two months Simhon has met with representatives of the ministries of finance and labor and social services to discuss the plan; last week he raised it with deputy attorney general Raz Nizri.
“My set of values is hierarchical. On the top are the citizens of Israel, with foreign workers below them,” Simhon told Haaretz.
The plan contradicts current laws and violates international treaties Israel has signed, say several sources who have seen it. “The plan will create two tiers of workers. In the United States, slavery was abolished 150 years ago. One cannot legitimize its return to Israel,” said one.
Simhon denies that the plan involves exploitation, saying that even if the wages of foreign workers are cut, they would still be earning considerably more than they would in their countries of origin.
The point of raising the minimum wage in Israel over the last decade “was not to improve the wages of foreign workers, which have risen from $500 to $2,000 a month,” he argues, saying this applies to pension benefits as well. “The ones paying these sums to foreign workers are old and disabled people. We’ve made them pay more; that’s absurd,” he said.
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Simhon added that “no foreign worker was coerced to come here. They wanted to be here when they made $500 and they’ll want to be here when they make $1,000,” he said, noting that this is still considerably more than they would be making in their native countries.
“We have to find a legal way to reduce costs, adding that “obviously, their rights should be respected and they should not be exploited. What I’m suggesting is not exploitation.”
He said that the ministries of finance and labor and social services are attentive to his plan, with further discussions planned with the ministry of justice.
Simhon told The Marker last year “minimum wage is a social idea, aimed at protecting weaker workers in the name of social solidarity. But this doesn’t apply to foreign workers.” “The minimum wage law can be changed by the Knesset. I’d like to see who would object,” he said this week.
However, experts in various fields slammed Simhon’s plan. “Labor laws are territorial and apply to anyone in Israel’s jurisdiction , regardless of their legal status. It’s a basic principle. Even an infiltrator can turn to the labor court if he’s not paid minimum wage,” said someone familiar with the plan. “In the current legal situation, one cannot downgrade the conditions of foreign workers, even by consent. You can only upgrade them.”
According to another source, the intent to infringe on the social rights of foreign workers contravenes the international covenant on social rights, which was ratified by Israel in 1991. It obligates employers to pay fair wages and equal pay for equal work, without any discrimination. The plan also violates bilateral agreements signed in recent years, such as between Israel and the Philippines with regard to caregivers.
Simhon dismissed concerns about violating international agreements. “I’m committed to the laws of Israel and to the welfare of its citizens. What some Swede in some international organization determined interests me much less…international treaties drawn up in Geneva don’t interest me,” he said.
“The notion that we can employ non-Israeli workers, profit from their labor and depend on it without giving them the benefits we see as the required minimum for maintaining human dignity is immoral,” charges Prof. Guy Davidov of the Hebrew University’s Faculty of Law.
Some observers say that Simhon’s plan is based partly on a High Court of Justice ruling 10 years ago, which determined that the law regulating working hours and days of rest does not apply to foreign workers in caregiving jobs. But that ruling was meant to be temporary, says attorney Hanny Ben-Israel from the Refugees and Immigrants’ Rights Clinic at the Interdisciplinary Center in Herzliya. The court instructed the Knesset to legislate a decent deal for caregivers, which would compensate them for their long hours. This never happened. A later ruling stated that social benefits for veteran caregivers from foreign countries should be equal to those enjoyed by Israelis. That ruling was chosen by then-Justice Edna Arbel in the ceremony marking her retirement from the Supreme Court in 2014. She stressed that foreign workers “could not be treated as the hewers of wood and drawers of water of Israeli society.”
“The traditional role of labor law is to combat exploitation. Instead, Simhon is trying to turn exploitation into an institutionalized norm,” said Ben-Israel. “Denying basic rights will hugely exacerbate their exploitation in the labor market. Experience shows that such norms spread and hurt Israeli workers as well.”
Studies conducted by the Bank of Israel also suggest that reducing the costs of foreign labor will also harm the wages of Israeli workers.
It’s not clear how far Simhon will be able to advance the plan. But sources at a meeting held last week to discuss it noted that there had been no opposition by senior officials in the labor and social affairs ministry.
“No one slammed the door on the plan to downgrade the rights of foreign workers,” said someone who was privy to the plan. “Up until a few years ago this discussion would have been unthinkable but now it’s considered legitimate.”