When a Filipina comes to Israel to work as a caregiver or domestic helper, for the elderly or disabled, she signs an agreement that bars her from getting pregnant. If she does, she is required to leave Israel with her baby within three months of giving birth.
On the face of it, it seems like a straight-forward contract the women sign and therefore there’s broad popular support for the government when it expels them and their children. They agreed to the terms so why should they be surprised at the consequences?
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But take that simple logic to its conclusion and something more complicated emerges: Every year some 8,000 people come to work in Israel as caregivers, most of them from the Philippines. According to figures from the Population and Immigration Authority, there are about 54,000 living in Israel right now legally, 84% of them women. There are another 11,000 working illegally. Half of all of them are under age 40.
They initially sign contracts for only five years, a limit set in order to prevent eldercare from becoming a way for people to effectively immigrate and settle in Israel. In practice, however, 41% stay on for six years or more and 21% remain for a decade or more. The average stay in Israel is about eight years.
It should be stressed that those who do remain in Israel beyond the five-year limit are doing so legally, and they can do so because the government has created all kinds of loopholes to get around the basic rule.
It’s Israeli logic at its best: Young women come to Israel, live here for many years – the years in which they are mostly likely to get pregnant – and when some of them do the State of Israel becomes enraged and pursues them and their young children, as if they were committing a serious criminal offense.
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It’s a ridiculous, mean-spirited policy that violates human nature and human rights. It’s poor policy that imposes a price on women who can’t defend themselves and on children who have done no one any wrong.
Arye Dery, the interior minister and Shas Party leader, seems to think his hunting down Filipina mothers and their children will win him more votes from his ultra-Orthodox base. He’s the man who is defending the purity of Israel’s Jewish population. But the reality is it’s hard to think of something less Jewish than expelling innocent children, especially given that the problem is due to short-sighted government policies, unparalleled in any other advanced country.
Research by Yossi Tamir and Yossi Avraham published in 2012, using data from a decade ago, found that Israel had the world’s second-highest percentage of foreigners employed as caregivers. In fact, it’s probably the highest rate in the world, because in other countries, foreign workers are immigrants, not people who have come for a fixed period of time.
Most other countries rely on local workers, immigrants or others. They don’t allow guest workers coming for fixed periods because they understand the cruelty inherent in such a policy. It means forcing young women to leave their children behind to be raised by grandparents or single fathers.
The Population and Immigration Authority pretends that situations like that “are culturally acceptable and not seen as abandonment,” but that’s nothing more than an attempt to assuage the Israeli conscience,
Other countries understand that if you are going to bring a young woman to work for years as a caregiver, you can’t tell her not to get pregnant or risk expulsion. So they strictly limit the privilege. In Canada, at the start of the decade, only 9% of elderly citizens got permission to bring in a foreign caregiver, compared with 41% in Israel. In any case, Canada offers them immigrant rights after several years.
Policies like Canada’s mean the cost of employing caregivers is much higher than in Israel. Tamir and Avraham estimate that the average pay for home caregivers in Israel, compared to the average pay nationwide, is the second-lowest among developed countries.
In other countries, they also work fewer hours, since a locally employed worker is less likely to agree to live in the elderly person’s home and be available 24/7 – at least not unless the pay is commensurately high.
That kind of 24/7 care is rare in other countries and in most cases isn’t necessary. Tamir estimates only 15% of the elderly really need it, but in Israel about 50% have it. A 2010 study by Zvi Eckstein for the Israel Democracy Institute found that Israel was the world leader in the percentage of elderly cared for at home.
The reason is that the help is so inexpensive. Israelis like to complain about the cost of home caregivers, but it is only about $1,500 a month on average, slightly above the minimum wage. It’s doubled over the past decade and that’s because the Supreme Court ruled that caregivers have a right to be paid the legal minimum wage.
But keep that in perspective: The minimum wage that the court mandated is applied to a full-time position, which for a typically caregiver is 24 hours a day, six days a week (and many opt to take the day off in pay and keep working). In practice, they are getting a third the minimum wage if you consider that every day they are working three eight-hour shifts.
The Population and Immigration Authority is proud about the high levels of elderly living at home — nearly all research shows that’s the ideal solution for them. But that comes at the cost of exploiting cheap labor.