Beth, who only feels safe giving her first name, is a caregiver from the Philippines. She has been in Israel since 1999 and, when she broke the terms of her work permit and had a child here, she decided to continue to work illegally.
She had to pay a hefty brokerage fee to a manpower company to get the visa in the first place: $2,700 in cash, she says. And though she paid back the sum, a desire to give her child a better life and remain with her employer, for whom she was working as a caregiver, made her stay – even if it meant facing deportation for breaking the terms of her permit.
Beth’s story is not unique. Almost all of the country’s unskilled foreign workers have to pay onerous brokerage fees to work as caregivers, or in other jobs allotted for foreign workers in construction, agricultural work or the hotel industry. The work visas – which last for just over five years – they get from Israel in return are not always renewed. And many are forced to break one of its most draconian clauses: the ban on having a child while in Israel.
The issue has come to the fore due to the recent crackdown on undocumented foreign caregivers, most of whom are women who remained in Israel illegally after giving birth to children here.
On Sunday, it was reported that a pregnant woman from Ghana has been held in isolation for four months by the Israel Prison Service, despite guidelines by the World Medical Association and the United Nations against holding pregnant women in isolation. Moreover, several mothers and their often Israeli-born children have been arrested and jailed since the summer, only to be later released on bail awaiting deportation hearings. The children all speak fluent Hebrew and have grown up in the country. Their potential deportation has sparked protests by their supporters and schoolchildren in Tel Aviv, seeking to save their friends.
“I’m not saying they have to absorb everyone who comes here,” Beth says, “but think of tomorrow before bringing more and more.”
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The timing of the current crackdown remains a source of anger and confusion among activists, especially since Israel is in political limbo, functioning with a transitional government as the country faces its third election in just under a year – which should mean, lawyers and activists argue, that there can be no legal directive to change policies now.
No romance allowed
Before a potential worker is granted a work permit, they must sign that they understand they are prohibited from engaging in romantic relationships. If they do so anyway and have a baby here, the conditions of their permit stipulates that the visa is automatically revoked unless they send their children to their home countries.
Such stipulations are unprecedented internationally, as far as Kav La’oved – Worker’s Hotline, an advocacy organization for Israel’s most disadvantaged workers, knows.
According to figures from the Population and Immigration Authority, there are some 55,000 legal caregivers in Israel, 84 percent of them women. There are another 11,000 who have overstayed or broken the terms of their visas, working illegally. Half of all of them are under age 40. These young women are in Israel, or have been in Israel, on a permit that allows them to stay for at least half a decade. In that time span, they are barred from starting a family, or risk losing their livelihoods.
“It’s a fairly rare model that combines a very developed country state of mind in wanting workers for specific sectors and then adopting a pretty illiberal version of what it means to live in a country in terms of prospects for staying,” says Reuven Ziegler, a visiting professor of law at the Hebrew University.
Experts and some politicians say this is a problem – one that stems from Israel preferring not to review its immigration laws and recognize what they say is a new reality.
Meytal Russo, a lawyer and the field coordinator of the caregiver section of Kav La’oved, says the reason is simple. The Israeli authorities “don’t want people to stay here and seek permanent residency in the country.” This does not only apply to caregivers, Russo says, but to construction and agricultural workers as well. But the caregiving sector is somewhat unique, she says, as “it’s such a delicate job, and they live with their employers.”
Red tape and deportations
Israel first began importing caregivers in the 1980s, mostly women and mostly from the Philippines, to fill a job Israelis themselves were unwilling to do. They were originally brought by the Defense Ministry to help care for disabled veterans, but later were granted permission to care for other disabled people and the elderly. Now, the government sets the amount of new workers allowed to enter the country based on the number of legal workers present the previous year. Approximately 9,000 new caregivers are brought into Israel each year.
A work permit is granted for five years and three months. If a caregiver’s job ends after they are here for four years and three months (if, say, the person they care for dies, or moves to a nursing home), they can only work in substitute jobs until the end of their permit.
There are ways for caregivers to prolong their stays: If a work permit is set to expire, a caregiver can apply for – and more often than not receive – an extended permit If a caregiver and employer want to continue working together, says Shoshana Strauss, senior deputy to the legal adviser of the Population and Immigration Authority. This is often the case when the caregiver and their charge have grown close, and it can be established that the caregiver’s work and presence has proven essential to their employer.
They can also apply for a 13-year “humanitarian visa,” which can be continuously renewed, if they provide care for individuals with severe disabilities.
Once one of these special or humanitarian work permits are granted, the worker becomes bonded to their employer, meaning they cannot work for anyone else at that time or later.
Despite regulations designed to limit their time in the country, some foreign workers have stayed on much longer – specifically female caregivers who become mothers. That’s because, in practice, Israel has largely not enforced its own deportation policy, which would see workers whose visas were revoked be sent back automatically. Many workers have been cobbling together jobs without a permit and raising school-age children who, until recently, were de facto exempt from the threat of deportation.
First in 2006 and then again in 2010, the Israeli government, under public pressure from Israeli families who need and value these caregivers, granted permanent visas to some 4,000 people. After 2010, if a foreign worker was approached by the authorities, they could show proof of having a school-age child and be released.
But last February, the Population and Immigration Authority detained 20 foreign workers from the Philippines, who were to be deported with their children. And in June, the authority announced that 100 foreign workers from the Philippines, along with their Israeli-born children, were slated for deportation over the summer. The arrests began in July, and have been ongoing.
“Now you have people effectively going into the shadows. And ultimately, every few years, the government decides for whatever reason to have an operation where they start rounding people up,” says Ziegler.
About 2,000 foreign workers across the sectors are deported each year, according to Population and Immigration Authority figures. The predominantly Filipino activist group United Children of Israel says an estimated 600 families currently face deportation, having lost their legal status in Israel.
Ziegler calls the system a “revolving door” model. “Israel clearly needs help in the care sector, but what it does not want is people settling in,” he says. “It does not want them to have a pathway to become permanent residents, or way to remain and then become citizens, so it simply blocks that route.”
Echoing Ziegler, Beth says there is another cynical factor in the equation. “This is a revolving door: you bring more people in and at the same time you expel people. Why bring in more and more? Because of the money.”
She claims that more workers equals more money secured for manpower companies, in both Israel and their countries of origin, who match workers with employers.
Founded as a national home for the Jews, the state has yet to figure out the puzzle of granting a set path for citizenship or permanent residency status to non-Jews not married to Israeli citizens who want to live here.
“I think it leads to the state very jealously protecting what it sees as a demographic majority – as in any changes that effect the ratio of Jews to non-Jews,” says Ziegler.
But Strauss says the intention of bringing foreign workers in was always meant to be a short-term arrangement. “The idea is that the foreign workers come for a short period of time – it’s for them to broaden their horizons and make money by filling vacancies in certain fields here. It’s a system that is meant to be good for the worker and for the country,” she says.
Fees and exploitation
Israel says the state does not have the resources to coordinate bringing in foreign workers. According to Russo, it prefers to let the 100 or so private manpower companies authorized to bring in caregivers handle the work instead, in collaboration with partner companies abroad.
Kav La’oved says these foreign manpower companies charge work-seeking caregivers brokerage fees ranging from $6,000 to $18,000, paid in cash and unreported – to the tune of almost $40 million in unreported income per year.
Ziegler calls it a “very cynical model,” adding that it is an ideal situation for the government. “If you had a system where people did stay longer, you would not need these companies – so it works very well for them and very well for the government, given their intention of not wanting workers to stay. And it works very badly for the workers.”
An entire economic ecosystem has emerged around these fees, says Idit Lebovitch, a member of the Kav La’oved board. If a worker does not have money to pay a brokerage fee, she says, they take loans from “financiers” – usually fellow foreign workers from the same country of origin. The loans are typically paid back from their monthly salary at a rate of 5 to 10 percent interest. It typically takes a worker a year or two to clear these debts; in that span, the worker makes no money, but instead transfers their salary directly to repaying these brokerage fees.
Kav La’oved’s website states that this leaves the workers vulnerable to severe exploitation – also known as debt bondage. Workers fear losing their jobs and being unable to repay the fees, which has resulted at times in physical harm.
Israel, for its part, is negotiating toward bilateral agreements to end the practice of brokerage fees with the main countries from which its foreign workers hail. The government plans to have these agreements with all relevant countries in place by the end of 2020, Strauss says. “We hope the distressing phenomenon of workers being asked to pay thousands of dollars in illegal fees will end.”
According to Lebovitch, the agreements are happening now because they’ve become common knowledge. “Everyone knows what’s going on, and it’s why the state is committed to making bilateral agreements,” she says. “It’s a matter of fighting manpower agencies, who are so powerful.”
A deal was struck between Israel and the Philippines, during Filipino President Rodrigo Duterte’s September 2018 visit to Israel, to end the fees. According to the agreement, which has yet to be implemented, Filipino workers would pay $800 for the processing and placement fee, rather than the up-to-$12,000 they currently pay.
In announcing the deal, Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu noted that his own father, Benzion Netanyahu, who lived to be 102, was cared for by someone the premier described as a devoted Filipino caregiver. “I, like many, many Israeli families, am deeply moved by this show of humanity,” he said.
But who specifically is caught and then deported depends to at least some extent on how well workers can blend in with the Israeli public, says Sigal Rozen, the public policy director at the Israeli human rights organization Hotline for Refugees and Migrants. She says those with Asian features or black or brown skin, for example, are more easily caught.
Beth, the caregiver, says she is devoted to the elderly people she has cared for and continues to care for. “I am not saying we are heroes, but the responsibilities we have when working with a person are overwhelming,” she says. “You are entrusted with a life, and this person depends on you in every single way.
“The family leaves them in your hands,” she adds. “You are not just working just for money, you need your heart. … You learn to love them.”