Bar-On Accepts Revolutionary Recommendations to End Foreign Labor

The revolutionary recommendations are meant to free the Israeli economy from its dependence on foreign labor, and it applies to the sectors where foreigners have a significant role: agriculture, construction and home nursing care.

Finance Minister Roni Bar-On has accepted the recommendations of a joint team of treasury and Bank of Israel officials on how to reduce the number of foreign workers in Israel.

The revolutionary recommendations are meant to free the Israeli economy from its dependence on foreign labor, and it applies to the sectors where foreigners have a significant role: agriculture, construction and home nursing care.

The group has met with representatives of contractors and farmers to reach an agreement on how to reduce the number of foreign workers. One recommendation is to establish a committee to reexamine the entire system for caring for the elderly in Israel, and in the end to free the home nursing care sector from its dependence on Filipino workers - and transfer the work to Israelis.

The working group has presented the first set of solutions which will enable replacement of the foreign workers in two critical industries: agriculture and nursing care. The recommendations for agriculture will allow farmers to continue to employ foreigners only in those jobs where they do not replace Israeli workers, and therefore do not harm the Israeli job market. This includes mostly moshavim (small, cooperative farming communities) in the Arava and central Negev, regions where there are no Israeli workers to fill the jobs.

At the same time, the committee recommended allowing farmers to employ foreign workers temporarily during harvest periods only. The foreigners would be allowed to work for only three to five critical months for picking crops and orchards. In such cases, the group felt the foreigners are not replacing Israeli workers, who are looking for more permanent work.

Another change would allow the farmers to bring in the workers from overseas themselves, without going through labor brokers. This would tie the workers to the formers directly, and would allow farmers to bring the same workers back to Israel every year for a few months.

Importing foreign workers would be strictly supervised, under the auspices of a new immigration authority to be set up in the Interior Ministry.

The workers would be paid only through direct deposits into their bank accounts, a step which would enable strict oversight and ensure that they are not employed in work other than that for which they were brought to Israel, and are also not working for other employers. It would also ensure they are paid legally and receive all the money and benefits they are entitled to.

The committee has no intention of allowing foreign workers to be employed in any other agricultural positions:

All permanent foreign agricultural workers, except for those in the two southern regions, would be replaced by Israelis. The way to do this, the committee envisions, is by industrializing Israeli agricultural, which would allow significantly raising workers' salaries in the sector - and attracting Israeli workers.

Industrialized agriculture would require much fewer employees than now, but their productivity would be much higher, and of course they would be paid much more.

The committee studied Dutch agriculture as a model. Dutch farmers pay 15 euros an hour to their workers, but agriculture in Holland is much more profitable than in Israel as a result.

Talks with farmers' representatives are under way. The idea is to reduce the number of foreign agricultural workers from 27,000 today to 7,000 within seven years.

The second critical industry to be tackled is home nursing care. Since 1997 the number of foreign workers, mostly Filipinos, caring for the elderly has skyrocketed from 7,000 to 50,000. According to the committee's estimates, if nothing is changed the number will hit 150,000 within seven years - a world record for employing foreign nursing care workers in per-capita terms.

This huge number of home care workers is the result of mistaken policies for caring for the elderly in Israel, the committee feels. In fact, it would be more correct to say it is the result of a lack of a clear policy, they say.

There are no clear criteria for who is allowed to hire a foreign nursing care home worker, and the entire industry needs a major overhaul. A clear definition of which elderly people need 24-hour-a-day home nursing support must be made, according to the recommendations. The committee thinks that this would limit the number of foreign workers to those who truly need the care, and this number is no larger than 10,000.

Many other elderly only need care a few hours of the day, and this work could be provided by Israeli employees.

Already today there are 60,000 Israelis working in the home nursing care industry, and the committee thinks that appropriate policies could increase this number greatly.

The recommendations include establishing a new committee to determine policy for caring for the elderly, with an emphasis on how this would affect the Israeli employment market.

For all other industries, the committee's answer is no more foreign workers. This includes construction, which is supposedly scheduled to transform to industrialized construction techniques by 2010 - which would free it of the need for foreign workers.

This would increase the employment of Israelis in the sector enormously. The number of Israelis employed in construction has grown by 20,000 in recent years. The committee's target is a NIS 50-an-hour wage in construction, which they feel would enable the recruitment of large numbers of Israelis.

Restaurants would also be banned from employing foreigners; except for professional chefs who earn high wages.

The overall goal is to reduce the number of foreign workers by about 100,000; and create 70,000 jobs for Israelis. The difference in numbers stems from drop in workers needed as construction and agriculture become more industrialized.

The Immigration Police would supervise the new policies under the auspices of the Interior Ministry's new Immigration Authority. Each foreign worker would be issued an identity card with a magnetic strip, and employers would need to pay the foreigners according to all legal standards and labor laws.

The authority would have the right to fine employers violating the rules - and foreign workers too - to the tune of tens of thousands of shekels.

Any new requests for importing foreign workers would require an opinion from the Trade and Industry Ministry on its economic necessity, as well as the approval of a new joint forum to be established on the matter.