The cabinet on Sunday approved Finance Minister Moshe Kahlon’s plan to allow up to 20,000 additional Chinese construction workers to be brought to Israel.
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In recent years the foreign, interior and construction ministries engaged in negotiations with the Chinese government to come to a bilateral agreement, but no agreement was reached, in part over China’s demand that its nationals not work in West Bank Jewish settlements. The Israeli government rejected the condition and the arrangement provided for in the new cabinet resolution does not require a bilateral agreement with the Chinese government.
The plan approved by the cabinet on Sunday has sparked criticism recently over concerns that it will spawn corruption and worker exploitation, two problems that have afflicted the manpower sector in the past.
The Finance Ministry housing experts told the cabinet that boosting the number of foreign workers in the construction industry would cut the time it takes to carry out high-rise residential construction (of at least nine stories) by 20% to 30% and reduce the cost that the contractor incurs by about 50,000 shekels ($13,000).
At the request of Education Minister Naftali Bennett, the cabinet resolution was approved as a temporary two-year order after which the subject is to be revisited. Although passed by majority vote, the resolution was opposed by Economy Minister Arye Dery of Shas, Interior Minister Silvan Shalom (Likud) and Agriculture and Minister Uri Ariel (Habayit Hayehudi).
The government has been trying without success to increase the number of foreign workers in the construction sector in an effort to boost housing stocks and curb the spike in housing prices. Although a resolution was passed authorizing 15,000 foreign construction workers, there are only about 6,500 in the country, about half of whom are from China.
Chinese workers are regarded as being especially skilled in so-called “wet” finishing of buildings, which include molding and iron work, flooring and plastering. The industry also employs workers from Bulgaria, Moldova and Turkey.
The failure to increase the number of foreign construction workers until now stems mainly from Israel’s commitment to bring in laborers based on bilateral agreements with the workers’ country of origin that set the terms under which they are to be employed. This method was adopted to prevent the abuse of workers by manpower agencies that charge them major sums for the “right” to work in Israel, making the laborers beholden them due to the obligation to repay those initial fees.
The head of the housing team at the Finance Ministry, Avidgor Yitzhaki, was a major advocate of the decision now approved by the cabinet on the importing of Chinese workers. A major increase in construction manpower was necessary to increase output in the residential construction sector, he said. The assessment is based in part on a model developed at the Technion Institute of Technology which concluded that the construction of 60,000 new housing units a year requires an additional 21,000 foreign workers.
The Finance Ministry housing team noted that in 2007 it took an average of 24 months to build a housing unit, while now that figure is more than 27 months. The additional time, the ministry staff said, is the result of a shortage of skilled labor.
The cabinet resolution provides that the Population and Immigration Authority will immediately contract with five agencies licensed by the Chinese government and that the agreements will include terms to prevent exploitation of the workers.
However, Zionist Union Knesset member Shelly Yacimovich criticized the decision. “Importing workers like this will seriously hurt employment, reduce the wages of poor workers in Israel and perpetuate the technological lag in the construction industry,” she claimed, adding that there is evidence of serious violations of the rights of Chinese workers in Israel whom she called captives of the agencies that have arranged their employment.