As Israel Deports Asylum Seekers, It Imports Thousands of Foreign Workers

Cabinet approves boosting ceiling for foreign workers in construction industry by 6,000 from current 16,500

An asylum seeker holding a deportation notice near the Interior Ministry in Bnei Brak, January 4, 2018.
meged gozani

Israel approved on Sunday boosting the ceiling for foreign workers in the construction industry by 6,000 from the current 16,500. The extra quota is specifically for workers employed by the foreign contractors now permitted to operate in Israel to help ease the housing shortage, while the first 16,500 are free to work wherever they please.

On Sunday, Israel began issuing deportation notices to asylum seekers from Eritrea and Sudan who are not held in the Holot detention facility.

The government also rescinded a rule that forbade companies bidding on government and other public sector construction contracts to employ foreign workers. The rule was introduced in 2001, as Israel was in the midst of an economic crisis; the unemployment rate had risen to over 10% while at the same time the number of foreign workers in Israel had reached a record 250,000, most of them in the country illegally.

Sixteen year later — with the jobless rate at a record low and fewer Israelis than ever interested in construction trades — the government finally canceled the law.

Also on Sunday, the cabinet approved a measure to authorize foreign construction workers to work on infrastructure projects, as well as Palestinian building workers working in Israel.

A Chinese construction worker in Tel Aviv
Tomer Appelbaum

Finance Minister Moshe Kahlon – who has tried to ease the housing crisis through more building, among other things – explained the decision by saying that mass residential building is being held up by the infrastructure bottlenecks.

Nevertheless, the Bank of Israel and Kahlon’s own budget division oppose increasing the quota of foreign workers because it will deprive people in Israel’s lowest income groups of the opportunity to find jobs in construction, especially when the job market turns softer, as it inevitably will.

In addition, they argue that guest workers get paid less and bring overall wages in the building sector down.

Moreover, they contend that it won’t be easy to send foreign workers home when they are no longer needed. While the Finance Ministry contends that the Chinese workers being brought to Israel now won’t remain in a country where they aren’t welcome, historical experience shows that a large segment of any group of foreign workers ends up remaining in the country where they were employed.

Many officials on Sunday expressed concern that employers simply prefer more disciplined foreign workers over Israelis, especially as it is easier to ignore their labor rights.