Foreign Workers Forced to Pay $10,000 in Agent Fees to Come to Israel

Although the law forbids the collection of such fees from migrant workers, they have steadily been rising, especially for those employed as caregivers.

Ilan Lior
Ilan Lior
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An elderly woman with her caregiver, 2011.
An elderly woman with her caregiver, 2011.Credit: Alon Ron
Ilan Lior
Ilan Lior

A new survey by an NGO supporting migrant workers in Israel reveals that all who entered the country in recent years paid a high agent fee. The survey, conducted by Kav LaOved Worker's Hotline and reported here for the first time, found that on average, the fee paid in 2015 was $10,700, as compared to $6,000 a decade ago — an increase of nearly 80 percent. The law expressly forbids collection of an agent fee from migrant workers.

Citizens of the Philippines, who comprise about a third of the caregivers for the elderly in Israel, paid $8,300. Caregivers from India and Sri Lanka paid $12,000, or 50 percent more. The survey also shows that 46 percent of migrant caregivers who entered Israel in 2015 paid part or all of the agent fee in Israel, compared to 38 percent during 2007 to 2010. This undermines the authorities’ claim that it is hard to find evidence of offenses since the transactions are not conducted in Israel. The survey was conducted among 265 migrant workers who came to Israel in 2014 and 2015.

The migrant workers are almost always required to pay the agent fee up front. In some cases, they are asked to pay only part of the sum in their country and the rest upon their arrival in Israel. In the best case, family or friends lend them the money. If that is not an option, they are forced to borrow thousands of dollars at a high interest rate. Even if the worker puts his entire salary toward covering the debt, it takes him around 11 months to repay it. However, most workers keep a small portion of their wages to live on and send part of their earnings back to their families, and it takes them a year and a half to two years after their arrival in Israel to pay back the debt.

In 2010, collecting an agent fee from foreign workers was criminalized as part of a law prohibiting money laundering. The penalty for illegally collecting payment from migrants was increased to a possible three years’ imprisonment and a fine of 220,000 shekels. Recruitment companies are only permitted to collect a fee of 2,840 shekels per year from the employer, or in the case of caregivers, from the patient in need of care. In theory, the migrant worker should only pay for a one-way plane ticket, a document handling fee and medical exams. But the reality is another story.

“I had to come to this country, to sacrifice my profession, because I really must help my family at home,” says L., a caregiver from the Philippines who like other migrant caregivers earns 4,000 shekels a month (about a thousand dollars). She says that at first she agreed to pay the recruiting agency $7,500, but they kept demanding more money from her at every stage in the process.

Like many other migrant workers, L. doesn’t take any days off in order to be able to repay her fee debt. “It’s so sad that all you want is to do is help your family so you just say ‘yes’ to whatever the agency tells you,” she says.

The solution: bilateral agreements

In 2003, State Comptroller Eliezer Goldberg addressed the issue: “In some countries, the foreign worker pays sums ranging from $3,000 to 10,000 just to work in Israel,” he wrote in his annual report. “This sum is divided among the manpower companies in the worker’s land of origin and the manpower agents in Israel.” Last year, the comptroller also expressed criticism of the state’s conduct in this area.

Direct bilateral agreements with other governments to bring in foreign workers are the main way to prevent these workers being charged inflated sums, since this breaks the connection between recruitment companies in Israel and agencies in the workers' countries of origin. These agreements are designed to ensure direct and unbiased recruitment of suitable workers with oversight and transparency. They allow the recruitment companies to charge the worker a onetime fee in the sum of a single month’s salary, about $1,000, for their services.

Not until the summer of 2012, nearly a decade after the comptroller’s report on the issue, did the first agricultural workers start to arrive under such an agreement with the Thai government. In the caregiving industry, which employs about 60 percent of the foreign workers in Israel, no such comprehensive agreement has been signed. A pilot program, which has so far brought 57 workers from Nepal to Israel, began in 2016. Agreements have been signed in the construction industry with Moldova, Romania and Bulgaria in recent years. These agreements led to the closing of most of the manpower companies that catered to these industries.

Such bilateral agreements are often signed following pressure from the judicial system. In 2006, Kav LaOved petitioned the High Court, asking that it obligate the state to ensure that foreign workers who come to Israel are not made to pay exorbitant agent fees. The case is still ongoing; on Monday the court will hold another hearing on the matter. Ahead of the hearing, the state announced Sunday that an agreement has been signed with Sri Lanka to bring in 50 caregivers as part of a pilot program. The government also said it is pursuing contacts with China with the aim of signing an agreement to bring in Chinese construction workers.

Meanwhile, recruitment companies for caregivers have asked the state to allow them to charge foreign workers some fees, like those paid by workers in the construction and agriculture industries. The case is still pending in court. The Economy Ministry has formulated regulations for this but they have yet to be approved. Kav LaOved says that the situation in the caregiving industry is completely different since in the other industries, the manpower companies are allowed to charge the equivalent of one month’s wages only after it's proven that the workers are not paying any other agent fees. This is not the situation in with foreign caregivers, who are subject to steadily rising agent fees.

Regarding this issue, the police say, “Whenever the Israel Police receives information or a complaint about a suspicion of alleged offenses committed in regard to the employment of foreign workers, including illegal collection of payments, these cases are investigated and handled by the relevant police units, with personnel from the national police force coordinating the activity and cooperation among all the relevant organizations.”

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