Crackdown on Asylum Seekers Will Leave Israeli Hotels Critically Short of Staff

African refugees fill thousands of low-wage jobs that Israelis refuse

African asylum seekers working at a hotel in Eilat.
Olivier Fitoussi

Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu’s proposal to begin forcibly expelling African asylum seekers is likely to exacerbate an already critical labor shortage in Israeli hotels and restaurants.

“The planned expulsion of asylum seekers is the last nail in the coffin for the entire hotel industry. When it begins, the industry simply won’t be able to do its job,” warned Avia Mizrahi-Magen, the CEO of Fattal Hotels, which operates 37 properties across Israel and employs about 450 asylum seekers. “The result is that we’ll have to close entire guest floors, even entire hotels.”

The converts arose after Netanyahu on Wednesday instructed National Security Adviser Meir Ben-Shabbat to examine the possibility of the forcible expulsion of African asylum seekers. The cabinet is expected to approve 300 million shekels ($87.4 million) for enforcement and airfare costs, among other expenses.

About 38,000 Eritrean and Sudanese citizens live in Israel. Most have temporary visa that must be renewed every three months. Under the current plan, proposal, these people will be given three months to leave the country, or face indefinite imprisonment. Anyone who employs asylum seekers will be fined.

That could be a big blow to the country’s hotels and restaurants, which together employ some 12,500 asylum seekers, mainly to clean rooms and wash dishes. Mizrahi-Magen said Israelis aren’t willing to do these jobs, leaving the industry no choice but to hire foreign workers.

Taking shelter
Number of asylum seekers arriving in Israel as of
June 2017

Israeli officials aim to bring the number of tourist arrivals up to five million annual from 3.6 million in 2017, Mizrahi-Magen noted. “It’s wonderful that they want to bring the five millionth tourist one day, but how will he going to served? How can we provide rooms?”

The Israel Hotels Association estimates that Israeli hotels employ about 2,500 asylum seekers. “There’s no choice but to employ asylum seekers in the hotels,” said the association’s president, Amir Hayek. “They would prefer to employ an Israeli worker who costs less but there aren’t enough Israelis willing to do the work.”

Although hoteliers and restaurateurs said many elements of the expulsion program were unclear, the timing couldn’t be worse as April marks the beginning of the tourism season, starting with the Passover holiday, then the celebration of Israel’s 70th anniversary, followed by the summer surge in arrivals.

At the Prima chain, which employs about 60 asylum seekers, CEO Avi Dor estimated he will lose 75% of his cleaners. As it is, he can only fill 80% of positions. “When the asylum seekers go, we’ll have no choice but to close off some of our rooms What can we do if there’s no one to clean them?” Dor said.

At Prima’s Dead Sea hotels the labor shortage is the most severe. As a result the chain has stopped selling rooms on the basis of guests staying from Sunday to Thursday and from Thursday till Sunday. “Today we can’t allow ourselves to do that because by 8 P.M. there won’t be enough clean rooms for everyone,” said Dor.

An asylum seeker working at a hotel in Eilat.
Olivier Fitouss

Restaurants employ an additional 10,000 asylum seekers, and the government’s expulsion plans are putting them in a similarly untenable situation.

“Without question, if this happens we won’t be able to operate our businesses. These are workers who are occupying positions that Israelis aren’t prepared to accept,” said Shai Berman, CEO of the Israel Restaurants Association.

“Israelis think that we employs asylum seekers because they are cheaper than Israeli workers, but the truth is the opposite,” he said.

The reason, he explained, is that the High Court of Justice ruling in September approving government policy requiring employers to pay a 20% tax on asylum seekers., just as they do on other foreign labor. In addition, employers to deposit 16% of an asylum seeker’s gross pay in a closed deposit and the workers themselves another 20%. Many of them doubt they’re ever seen the deposited money, so they prefer to work off the books.

Eitan Tarablos, a co-owner of the Agadir chain of hamburger restaurants, said he employs about 50 foreign workers, 40% of them asylum seekers.

“We may need to cut back operations and close some [restaurants] in the afternoons or close them earlier,” he said. “Even though we’re paying 8,000 and 10,000 a month for a full-time position, we’re not getting Israeli job applicants,” Tarablos said.

In response, Tourism Minister Yariv Levin, who has been leading a drive to boost tourism, said he was working with the Finance Ministry budget division on a plan to bring in more Filipinos to work in hotels. The treasury said it was meeting with hotel and restaurant industry figures to address the problem, but offered no further details.