Israel's Top Court Rebukes State for Cutting Asylum-seekers' Pay

Justice says the so-called 'deposit law' may push an already vulnerable population out of the labor market and potentially out of the country

Asylum seekers in Tel Aviv.
Moti Milrod

The High Court of Justice sharply criticized a law requiring asylum-seekers to deposit almost 20 percent of their salaries into a fund that will be returned to them only when they leave the country, warning that this provision could drive them out of the labor market.

The law, which took effect in early May, also requires employers to deposit an additional 16 percent of the asylum-seeker’s salary into the special fund. If the asylum-seeker doesn’t leave the country when and if the state requires him to do so, the state can confiscate a significant portion of this sum.

At Wednesday's hearing, Justice Uri Shoham questioned whether the law could push asylum-seekers out of the workforce and out of Israel.

“The question is whether in practice, there isn’t some kind of declared or undeclared goal of pushing them out of the labor market,” Shoham said during the hearing. He noted that aside from the deposit law, employers are also required to pay the state a fee for every foreign worker they hire that is equivalent to 20 percent of the worker’s salary.

Shoham said it is impossible to separate the question of whether asylum-seekers are being pushed out of the market and 20 percent fee, which, he said "makes the cost of employing these workers much more expensive on one hand, and reduces their salary on the other. This could lead to the result, and I don’t know if anyone has thought of this or intended it, of simply removing them from the labor market, and perhaps in this way also to push them out.”

Government attorney Ran Rozenberg said the law is an economic tool to encourage asylum-seekers to leave the country it becomes possible. “In another two or three years – once that person can leave – Israel wants him to have a reason to leave,” he said.

The petitioners argued that the law will prevent asylum-seekers from supporting themselves since they will be earning less than the minimum wage once the 20 percent sum is deducted. Rozenberg rejected this argument, saying that the state had determined a “threshold for a minimum dignified human existence,” and asylum-seekers’ salaries would exceed that minimum even after the deposit fee is deducted.

He also said the sharp rise in the number of asylum-seekers leaving for Canada refutes the claim that economic distress will force them to go back to countries where they are in danger.

This statement prompted Justice Uzi Vogelman to criticize the very low percentage of asylum-seekers who have actually been granted asylum in Israel, noting that the rate is significantly lower than in other countries. “The Canadian example is just one proof of this,” he said.

The High Court petition was filed by the workers' rights nonprofit Kav LaOved and the Refugee Rights Program at Tel Aviv University; the latter was representing six other human rights organizations and seven asylum seekers from Eritrea and Sudan. The petition charged that the law is intended to embitter asylum-seekers and will drive many of them into poverty. A month ago, the finance and labor ministers signed a directive that would have slightly reduced the amount they are required to deposit, but since Interior Minister Arye Dery refused to add his signature, it cannot go into effect.

Attorney Michal Tadjer of Kav LaOved said the deposit law was “unprecedented, dramatic and could create a humanitarian crisis among asylum-seekers in Israel. I’m not exaggerating the far-reaching implications of this rule. It’s also unprecedented in the sense that it’s stealing 20 percent of their salary every month, for an unknown, unlimited length of time, from poor people who already earn low wages.”

The law has already made an impact in the few months since it went into effect, she said. “People are canceling health insurance for their children, taking children out of regular day care centers and putting them into what are called ‘child warehouses’; people are moving into very crowded apartments and thereby burdening the infrastructure and the communities. The purpose is illegitimate: to push them into poverty so they’ll waive the protection Israel is obligated to give them under international law.”

The Israeli restaurant association later joined the petition, saying the law would hurt both the workers and their employers. The association's lawyer, Rany Schwartz, said that some 20,000 asylum seekers are employed in restaurants.

“The problem is that under the current arrangement, everyone pays more and everyone gets less,” Schwartz said. Moreover, he added, the law doesn’t guarantee the asylum-seekers basic benefits, even though it requires both workers and employers make higher deductions from the worker’s salary than are made for Israeli workers who do get such benefits.

Eleven women’s organizations joined the petition as well, arguing that the law severely harms female asylum-seekers.

The Israeli Immigration Policy Center, which seeks to deport asylum-seekers and came up with the idea for the law, joined the petition as a respondent. It accused the human rights groups of ignoring the distress of residents of south Tel Aviv, where the bulk of the asylum-seekers live.