In April there was a small victory for justice in Israel. It came when the High Court of Justice overturned a law requiring the employers of asylum seekers to withhold 20 percent of their wages and deposit them into an escrow account, to be withdrawn only when and if they leave the country. The Deposit Law sought to encourage asylum seekers to leave Israel by worsening their conditions. Three years after this terrible law went into effect, the court struck it down as unconstitutional and gave the state 30 days to return the accumulated funds to workers.
But as Haaretz has reported, when the asylum seekers tried to withdraw their money, many were shocked to discover that while their employers had withheld 20 percent of their wages, they never deposited the money in the escrow account. In other words, the law that was making their already difficult lives even more difficult had made it possible for their bosses to make off with one-fifth of their pay.
If a society is measured by how it treats its weakest members, then Israeli society is at a nadir. The state has demonstrated zero tolerance toward people seeking refuge in Israel, and instead of helping them as it was obligated to do as a signatory of international conventions, it put active effort into making them miserable. Now it turns out that the cruelty of the state inspired employers to exploit the opportunity in order to add insult to injury.
Kav LaOved Worker’s Hotline is assisting 1,250 asylum seekers from Sudan and Eritrea who discovered that their employers had robbed them under the cover of the state. Every week the group must tell asylum seekers who were hoping to withdraw those funds in order to weather the coronavirus crisis that their money was gone.
According to figures from the Interior Ministry’s Population and Immigration Authority, of the 31,457 adult asylum seekers living in Israel, the escrow accounts were handled properly for just 385. For 36 percent, no funds were ever deposited on their behalf. Yet the Labor Ministry has investigated only 60 cases and sanctioned only 30 employers.
The Labor Ministry has made it clear that the asylum seekers can only force their employers to pay them back by filing a civil suit. That is unacceptable. A mass theft from people at the bottom of the food chain was perpetrated under the auspices of the law, and when this is discovered the state simply ignores its role in the matter. Interior Minister Arye Dery didn’t even bother responding to the reports.
The government’s silence makes it clear that asylum seekers’ money is fair game. But it was the state that set up the special fund. Now it must make sure the money that was supposed to be in it reaches the asylum seekers, whether by representing them in a lawsuit or by demanding it from the employers directly.
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The above article is Haaretz’s lead editorial, as published in the Hebrew and English newspapers in Israel.