Conditions Improve for Workers From Countries With Labor Agreements With Israel

Such agreements have cut illegal recruitment payments and improved most conditions and pay for foreign workers

File photo: Thai workers on their way to work in Israel's southern Arava region.
Ofer Vaknin

A new study from the Center for International Migration and Immigration, an Israeli nonprofit, in cooperation with the Population and Immigration Authority, has cast some light on the employment and living conditions of some 60,000 people who work as caregivers, and who make up about 60 percent of the foreign workers in Israel.

The research also shows a certain amount of improvement for those foreign workers employed in construction and agriculture as a result of the implementation of bilateral agreements with other countries, where the workers are brought in without paying middlemen. Most of those employed in these sectors, who make up 30 percent of foreign workers in Israel, came to Israel as part of these bilateral agreements.

The study was conducted by Prof. Rebeca Raijman of Haifa University and Dr. Nonna Kushnirovich of the Ruppin Academic Center, and is based on interviews with 130 people from Thailand who work in agriculture, 55 construction workers from Moldova, and 59 from Sri Lanka who work as caregivers. They found that workers who came to Israel from Thailand and Moldova as part of the bilateral labor agreements between the countries were not required to pay illegal recruitment fees to brokers – and the financial obligations they took on themselves to finance their work in Israel dropped dramatically.

Workers from Thailand were now required to pay about $2,000 before coming to Israel, compared to over $9,000 before the agreement was signed. Workers from Moldova, paid an average of only $330 each month. In the caregiving industry the illegal recruitment fees rose consistently and workers were forced to pay over $10,000 last year to come work in Israel.

The study paints a rather grim picture of the situation in the caregiving industry in Israel, as Israel has only two limited pilot agreements applying to the sector, one with Nepal and the other with Sri Lanka. Eighty percent of the foreign caregivers are women. In addition to the high recruitment fees, working hours remain high too, about 12 hours a day. Their regular time off from work has dropped from one day a week to one day every two weeks, compared to 2011, and only 20 percent receive payment for sick days. The pay for the caregivers has risen since 2011, from 3,400 shekels ($965) a month to 4,500 shekels, which was similar to the rise in the minimum wage over the same period. A slight improvement was found in the living conditions of caregivers too, and most of them live in the homes of their patients.

In agriculture, working hours have fallen from an average of 10.5 hours a day to 9.3 hours as a result of the bilateral agreements, and the number of days off has risen. The number of those receiving overtime pay, as well as protective and safety equipment for those working in dangerous conditions, has risen too. But wages have almost not moved, and last year the average monthly wage was about 4,800 shekels.

Only 17 percent of those working in agriculture received paid sick days, about the same as five years earlier. What did get worse after the signing of the bilateral agreements were the living conditions: 88 percent of the Thai workers in agriculture did not receive a clothes cupboard, half were not provided with electric heaters and 12 percent were not provided with a refrigerator.

Conditions for foreign workers were better in the construction industry, and the wages for such workers from Moldova rose by 12 percent between 2014 to 2016, reaching 7,200 shekels a month on average last year. The work day has shortened from 11.4 hours to 9.9 hours and the number receiving overtime pay has climbed, as has the number receiving protective and safety gear. Living conditions improved slightly, but 27 of the workers in construction still did not have electric heaters, 23 percent did not receive an air conditioner or fan, and 14 percent did not have a refrigerator and a kitchen with hot and cold water.

The Population and Immigration Authority said in response, “We are vigorously promoting the issue of bilateral agreements and have taken unprecedented steps on this issue in recent years. Agreements have been signed in the fields of construction and agriculture. The home health aide field is a sensitive and complex one and we are working to advance agreements in this field as well, using appropriate caution with the aim of reaching the best possible results.”

Israel has delayed signing agreements on bringing caregivers to Israel with certain countries alleged to pay illegal recruitment fees to middlemen. Many workers in the nursing care sector continue to be employed under exploitative conditions.