Thousands of Asylum Seekers at Risk of Losing Their Jobs in Israel After Court Ruling

The Supreme Court ruled government bodies are not permitted to employ asylum seekers from Eritrea or Sudan, leaving them stuck 'between a rock and a hard place'

Men sitting in south Tel Aviv near a demonstration protesting an August High Court decision forbidding Israeli authorities from forcibly deporting asylum seekers from Sudan and Eritrea to a third country or holding them in detention for more than two months.
Moti Milrod

Government ministries and local governments are not permitted to employ asylum seekers from Eritrea or Sudan, the Supreme Court ruled last week, confirming what is already government policy and potentially prompting thousands of asylum seekers employed in cleaning and maintenance to lose their jobs.  

In another ruling, the court denied appeals by private employers to scrap government policy that requires employers hiring asylum seekers to pay a levy of 20 percent of their salaries to the state, similar to what the employers of other foreign workers must pay. Representatives of human rights groups say the two court rulings could be highly damaging to the job market for both the asylum seekers and their employers. 

The first case arose from a petition filed by a manpower company Y. B. See Resources challenging the terms of bidding processes to supply janitorial services to government ministries and local governments. The company claimed it was being priced out of any successful bid due to the higher cost of employing asylum seekers.

The Jerusalem District Court ruled that the claim was unfounded because Finance Ministry regulations bar government ministries and local governments from employing foreign workers, including asylum seekers as cleaners in any event. The manpower firm appealed, claiming that a distinction had to be made between asylum seekers and other foreign workers. 

Writing for the court, Justice Elyalkim Rubinstein ruled that the status of asylum seekers from Sudan and Eritrea was unclear, noting that they are “between a rock and a hard place” but he ruled that there are no grounds for the court to intervene in the Finance Ministry regulations. They are in keeping, he said, with cabinet resolutions seeking to expand employment opportunities for Israeli citizens, and still allow the manpower firms to employ asylum seekers in private industry and Israelis to work in government settings. 

When it became clear to the court that asylum seekers are working in government settings in violation of the regulations, Rubinstein said that the attorney general should consider the court ruling and the state should take a position on the applicability of the regulations to janitorial positions. 

On the issue of the 20 percent tax, the court denied an appeal filed by 10 employers, including hotels and manpower agencies employing janitorial workers, over the Tax Authority’s demand that they pay sums retroactively for up to six years.

The employers claimed that the asylum seekers have protected status in Israel and should be considered refugees, unlike other foreign workers who are in the country for a specific purpose and a limited time frame. The asylum seekers need to work to support themselves, the employers added. The state responded that the tax is in keeping with government policy seeking to encourage asylum seekers to leave the country rather than settling in. 

Reacting to the two decisions, a coalition of human rights and refugee aid groups issued a statement saying in part: “The Supreme Court’s decisions will contribute to a worsening of poverty, the dismissal of thousands of workers, the employment of many of them in violation of the law and in serious violations of their rights.” The rulings will also result in a black market in the labor market, leading to more workers being employed under the table and in the process degrading the labor market in general, the statement added.