Israeli Businesses Face a Labor Crunch as Asylum Seeker Deportations Moves Ahead

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Credit: Olivier Fitoussi

They arrive with pail and mop in hand as the Tel Aviv business day winds down and the office towers empty. They vacuum the carpets of the vacated buildings, wash the hallways, clean the toilets. Others sweep streets, work in government nurshing homes or unload good merchandise in the Carmel market. These people, asylum seekers, or “infiltrators,” most of them from totalitarian states, do the jobs Israelis scorn. Now they face expulsion.

>> Everything you need to know about Israel's mass deportation of asylum seekers <<

Beyond the humanitarian aspect, deporting the refugees would be an economic bombshell, says Ilan Shimoni, chairman of the cleaning companies’ association. He estimates that 10,000 refugees work in cleaning, about 15% of the total cleaning workforce, which is perennially short of workers.

Before asylum seekers began to arrive in 2007, most cleaning jobs were held by immigrants who came from Ethiopia or from the former Soviet Union in the 1990s, Shimoni says. Some still are, while about 25% of cleaners are Arab Israelis. But the industry needs more workers, and he for one feels the migrant workers have a better service sense than Israelis do. Shimoni also points out that unemployment is just 4% and the leisure culture is flourishing: Israelis won’t take cleaning jobs.

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Credit: Olivier Fitoussi

As for the government’s suggestion that more West Bank Palestinians be allowed in, Shimoni says that could work until there’s a terror attack somewhere: “In a heartbeat, they’d be gone. It isn’t a solution you can count on.”

Last week immigration inspectors began issuing expulsion orders to single men of working age.

There are about 37,200 asylum seekers in Israel now, not including children, according to the Population and Immigration Authority. There are no figures for children, but the authority estimates there are about 5,000.

These refugees had enjoyed a sort of group protection against expulsion on the grounds of United Nations recognition of their home countries as high-risk. But after years of zigzagging policy, which included concentrating them in south Tel Aviv or sending them to the Holot detention facility in the Negev, moving them north, moving them back south, et cetera, the government decided that from April 1, any refugee refusing to voluntarily depart, with a payment of $3,500, would be sent to a third country (apparently Rwanda, though Israel won’t say). If he refuses to budge, he goes to jail in Israel.

Provocative policy

The policy provoked protest from politicians, social activists, intellectuals, doctors, leading businessmen and Holocaust survivors. Some vowed to hide refugees in their homes, to protect them from expulsion, on moral grounds: Israel, founded as a refuge for Jewish refugees, should not expel people who cannot go back to their home countries.

Many Africans who reached Israel in recent years have already left: At the peak, around seven years ago, there were 65,000 in Israel.

While working toward deporting asylum seekers, the government is gradually increasing the number of foreign workers in Israel, mainly in construction — even though policy from 2003 has been to scale back foreign labor in order to save unskilled Israeli labor. Just last week the government approved bringing 6,000 more foreign workers for construction, working for nonresident companies. The industry already has 16,500 foreign workers.

Foreigners also work in geriatric care (about 50,000) and agriculture, and the quota for various foreign experts is 5,000 more. Altogether Israel has 88,000 permitted foreign workers, and about 18,000 illegal ones (whose visas ran out).

Construction will suffer from the expulsion of the asylum seekers. About 2,500 of them work in building, mostly as apprentices or in unskilled work. They’re usually hired through a “rais,” a subcontractor of the subcontractors of the builder. There are issues with their rights, says Daniel Vaknin, a lawyer who represents asylum seekers suing their employers in labor courts. “I have hundreds of pictures and video clips of asylum seekers getting paid cash by a Chinese rais. They usually get 30 shekels an hour and no social benefits.”

Hotels employ about 2,500 Eritreans and Sudanese, the Hotels Association estimates. Hoteliers are also dismayed at the government policy. Avia Mizrahi-Magen of the Fattal hotels chain, recently told Haaretz the planned expulsion is a “death blow” to the Israeli hotel industry, though the Tourism Ministry is working on a plan to let 1,000 Filipinos into the country to work in hotels.

Many Filipinos already work in geriatric care in Israel, though absent an agreement with the Filipino government, they come through manpower companies that charge each worker a small fortune. Tourism Ministry Director General Amir Halevy says that while incoming tourism is flourishing, with 3.6 million visitors a year (Israel’s population is about 8 million), the hotels industry has been losing workers. So it needs the fresh input and bringing in Filipinos is the way to go, he says.

Of some 186,000 Israeli restaurant employees, around 10,000 are asylum seekers, most of them in Tel Aviv. Most work as dishwashers or cleaners. “They constitute only about 5% of workers but they’re irreplaceable,” says Shai Berman, the director of the Israel Restaurants and Bars Association. “You can’t run the business without dishwashers. Some years ago, when the asylum seekers went on strike, restaurants reduced their hours and used disposable plates.”

In contrast to the conventional wisdom, employing asylum seekers isn’t cheap, Berman says. “The state, for example, decided to impose a levy of 20% of the gross salary on anybody employing them, which is the same as the levy employers pay for licensed foreign workers.” But the restaurants have no choice, he claims: With basically no unemployment in Israel, it’s a workers market and Israelis won’t take these jobs.” The only answer is Palestinians or foreign workers and the government has to decide which, Berman says.

The situation for the asylum seekers is practically impossible. They’re not official migrant workers; they do not “belong” to any particular industry and cannot work in an orderly manner, including social benefits on salary, medical coverage, payment of tax, and so on. Yet they can’t be expelled because of the group protection they are entitled to, based on the UN-recognized danger in their countries of origin.

Gov’t avoids sanctions

For its part, the government avoided wielding sanctions against them for being illegal workers. In 2010, answering a high court petition, the state even formally stated that it wasn’t taking action against the asylum seekers, who found low-pay work in the metropolises.

Equating the levy on employment of asylum seekers to that of foreign workers, 20%, was designed to discourage their employment, pursuant to the policy of encouraging them to leave. Recently the government approved 25,000 more work permits for Palestinians and has already handed out half. Distributing the rest will depend on the pace at which asylum seekers leave.

A government official admits that there will be a problem but to prophesy collapse of hotels or restaurants is over-egging the pudding.

“The government decided that for every two infiltrators who leave, one Palestinian can be let in. That’s so Israelis also take these jobs. In any case, employers have to start accepting they’ll have to pay high wages to Israelis. Let’s not take their wailing too seriously. What they want is to screw the weakest workers and pay them as little as possible. There’s a good thing here — in a strong labor market, pay can be higher. The function of the levy on employment of foreign workers is to narrow the gap between the employment cost of foreign workers and Israelis. But there’s no drama.”

Given that the asylum seekers have become an integral part of the Israeli economy, in a state of practically no unemployment, one wonders why not let them remain as foreign workers with permits.

A paper published in 2016 by Dvora Blum and Anda Barak of the Ruppin Institute for Immigration and Social Integration modeled the employment of 25,000 asylum seekers: 10,000 in construction,10,000 in agriculture and 5,000 at hotels. The paper calculated that it would boost Israel’s GDP by 3.3 billion shekels and tax revenue by 120 million shekels a year. Bad debt to hospitals (where asylum seekers without health insurance are treated) would be reduced by 10 million shekels a year. Also, since construction and agriculture mainly operate outside Tel Aviv, the asylum seekers would move to other cities too.

“In principle, I oppose bringing foreign workers because it hurts the weak groups and depresses the import of new technologies, mainly in construction,” says Yarom Ariav, a former Finance Ministry director general. “But this is different. First, there’s the moral argument. I oppose expelling these people by force, certainly to a country like Rwanda. On the economic front, the state spends hundreds of millions of shekels on this deportation mission, much of which is not transparent, because we don’t know how much money Rwanda is getting. With this money, a serious program could be created to disperse the asylum seekers around the country after mapping the employment needs of the various areas.”