For nine years, Debasi Habtu, a 42-year-old asylum seeker, has been going out every day to clean the streets of central Tel Aviv. He gets up before sunrise, glances at his sleeping children – aged six months, six years and 10 years – dons his yellow vest and bikes to Lincoln Street. There, he picks up his broom, a smile on his face, and clears away every bit of dirt he sees from 5 A.M. to 11 A.M.
“I know every street corner, all the people,” he said. “I like it when the street is shining.”
A few months ago, his wife, who also worked as a cleaner, was fired. Since then, the family has lived on his modest salary from Tel Aviv’s municipality – 35 shekels ($10.90) an hour. He said they barely manage to get through the month, but “make do with what we have.”
Even though everyone is happy with his work, he too will be fired next week. So will 60 other asylum seekers whom the municipality employs as cleaners via a subcontractor. Some are in their sixties; others have young children. Some are their families’ sole providers.
Moreover, asylum seekers who are fired aren’t entitled to unemployment compensation or welfare assistance. Thus, they may be left with no way to pay their rent or even buy food.
None are being fired due to dissatisfaction with their work or competition from better, more experienced workers. Rather, several weeks ago, the city signed a new contract with one of its cleaning companies that forbade it to continue employing asylum seekers and required it to promise to employ only Israeli citizens starting in January 2021.
Neither the municipality nor the company actually wants to fire the asylum seekers. But they are being forced to do so by a decade-old cabinet resolution on “encouraging the employment of Israelis.”
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Due to this decision, the Interior Ministry ordered the municipalities back in 2011 to stop employing foreigners as cleaners. The High Court of Justice upheld this policy after a petition was filed against it in 2017.
Despite both the ministry’s order and the court ruling, Tel Aviv and many other cities continued employing asylum seekers as street cleaners, due to a very open secret – Israelis don’t want to clean streets. And in a letter sent on Thursday to the directors general of the Interior and Social Affairs Ministries, the municipality urged them to let it continue this practice.
“There’s no need to waste words on the far-reaching impact this will have on the migrant worker community at this of all times, the height of the coronavirus crisis,” said the letter, signed by municipality deputy director-general Reuven Zluf. “Their chances of finding other jobs at the height of the crisis, and even after it, seem doubtful... Firing them will bring them and their families to the brink of starvation...
“In these unique and difficult times, the state has a moral obligation,” Zluf continued. He also admitted that it’s extremely difficult to recruit Israeli workers.
The city has appealed to the Interior and Social Affairs Ministries over this issue in the past. But back in August 2019, the Social Affairs Ministry replied that it could discuss the issue only after a new government was formed.
The subcontractor who won the contract, and now has to find replacements for the asylum seekers in the near future, also doesn’t know what to do. “I have no problem with employing Israelis; I’d be happy to,” he said. “But no Israeli wants to work as a street cleaner.
“It’s got nothing to do with the salary; Israelis just think this isn’t suitable work for them,” he added. “My heart hurts for these people, who know the work, have been doing it for years, and now, at the worst possible time, will be left with no income. It’s a lose-lose situation.”
“I’m 64 years old, [and] every morning I clean Rothschild Boulevard,” Amnil, one of those being fired, told Haaretz. “They told me that I won’t have work and I can’t manage to sleep at night anymore. Twelve years in Israel I have managed to work, and now when I’m old they will turn me into a beggar? How will I buy food?”
A woman who was also fired, Haben, said she has been cleaning Allenby Street for six years. Since she received the news, she has been unable to sleep. “I have two small children, they understand what’s happening,” she said. “They will throw us out of the house in another month. How will we pay rent? We looked and looked, there’s no other work.” Another man who was fired, Netsaref, 38, said he is worried his children would have to go out begging.
Asylum seekers have turned to Noa Kaufman, the head of the refugees department at Kav LaOved – Worker’s Hotline for the Protection of Worker’s Rights, with their pink slips. “This law does not need to include asylum seekers living here for reasons of protection and who were not brought here as [migrant workers] and are not allowed to be deported,” she said.
“While one hand blocks employment from asylum seekers during a global pandemic of unprecedented scope, with the other hand the State of Israel chooses to increase the number of migrant workers.” Kaufman said Israel is not really interested in increasing employment for Israelis in this case, and since the asylum seekers are not migrant workers in any case – and because the only way they can support themselves is through working – they should be exempted from this law immediately and “they should be allowed to live with dignity,” she added.
The city of Tel Aviv said it “sees great importance in the employment of the foreign workers, especially during the coronavirus period, and providing them with the opportunity to continue and support themselves with dignity, and firmly opposes the ban on their continued employment.”
The city said it was the government that established the ban on hiring foreign workers in sanitation and has been enforcing this ban on local authorities. The city said it had turned to the Interior and Labor Ministries many times with a request to exempt the foreign workers living in the city from the ban on working as cleaners, but these requests have not been accepted so far, and so the city has been forced to prevent sanitation contractors from employing them.
The city said that “during such unique and difficult times, the country is required to continue to enable these workers to fulfill one of the most basic rights of a human being, and that is the right to work with dignity and support themselves and their families.” This right is matched by the city’s need to clean the streets and the present difficulty in hiring Israeli workers for the job, and the city management supports the just struggle to continue employing foreign workers in the city “and will continue to work to revoke the ban,” said the municipality.
The Labor and Social Affairs Ministry said that “the entry and employment of foreign workers in various industries is set according to cabinet decisions. If the matter is brought up for discussion, we will examine the matter and its implications, and certainly during such a sensitive period.”
The Interior Ministry declined to comment on this report.