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http://www3.haaretz.co.il/eng/scripts/article.asp?mador=4&datee=01/12/00&id=66026

Treatment of workers is a national shame

By Akiva Eldar

With Ofer Nimrodi facing trial over charges that he conspired to commit murder, who has time for small change like the two female foreign workers who serve the young newspaper tycoon? With all the trouble he has landed in, Nimrodi would not have taken the chance of hiring foreign workers illegally. Indeed, those who frequent his home say that he got himself a permit.On its own, this fact should be more worrying than the employment of foreign workers without a permit. If Nimrodi is healthy enough to spend time in jail, why did he get a permit to employ two foreign workers? In order to get a permit for foreign household helpers (one, not two), paraplegics are required to prove annually that they have not grown new legs.

On the face of things, what are two foreign maids when compared to the serious charges against Nimrodi or the suspicion that President Ezer Weizman accepted thousands of dollars not entirely in accordance with the law? Politicians, among them government ministers, say that had the proposal that came before the last Knesset to set up a parliamentary investigative committee to look into the matter of foreign workers been passed, the findings would have dwarfed the Nimrodi and Weizman affairs. Billions of shekels circulate annually in a market that is run in part by fat cats with connections to the establishment. People who have a hard life or just plain suckers wait for months in order to secure a permit to hire a foreign worker. People with lots of money in their pockets, who know whom to pass it along to, expedite the procedures.

Comments made recently by the head of the Foreign Workers Administration at the Ministry of Labor and Social Affairs, Efraim Cohen, at a meeting with senior officials at the Foreign Ministry hint at what politicians know and are keeping quiet. Cohen's explanation of the inherent difficulty in passing a law for the protection of foreign workers is that there is "a strong lobby - political and economic - of interested individuals." Cohen added that this strong lobby, especially the contractors and farmers, "prefers foreign workers, while the government prefers hiring Palestinians." The foreign workers lobby derives its power in part from Knesset members and senior politicos whose families run large manpower companies.

And it is not just the human rights organizations, headed by Workers' Line, that are helpless facing these politicos. The government establishment itself also has not been able to step into the breach. The efforts by the coordinator of activities in the territories, Yaakov "Mendi" Or, to bring workers from the territories back to the field and building sites are running up against brick walls. The director-general of the Foreign Ministry, Eytan Bentsur, wrote to the director-general of the Prime Minister's Office, Yossi Kucik, on September 13 about the "the severe damage to Israel's image caused by the arrest and deportation of foreign workers from the country." He recommended enforcing the law on employers who exploit the workers and deny them their basic rights.

Bentsur wrote, "Back at the beginning of 1999 ,[then Foreign] Minister Ariel Sharon sent a written warning to the ministers of the interior, labor and social affairs and public security but, to our regret, no real progress has yet been made on this issue."

On December 9 Bentsur again wrote to Kucik about "the shameful exploitation of foreign workers that brings disgrace upon Israeli society and gives it a bad name in the world." He noted that the problems he had enumerated in his previous letter, particularly the difficulty of enforcing the law on employers, had not yet been solved and "there is a need for the Prime Minister's Office and the government of Israel to address this painful issue."

The market for foreign workers is controlled by the Interior Ministry, which was in the hands of Shas for years, and the Ministry of Labor and Social Affairs, which Shas holds to this day. On October 12, Health Minister Shlomo Benizri stood in for Labor and Social Affairs Ministers Eli Yishai at a Knesset debate on foreign workers. MK Zahava Gal-On of Meretz related that there were 60 workers from Romania living near the purification plant in Haifa Bay. In addition to the omnipresent terrible stench, the workers are suffering from skin rashes, headaches and stomachaches. Gal-On reported that members of the Haifa municipal council who visited the site could not stay there for more than a 90 seconds. "And I'm talking about people who actually live there," she said.

What did Benizri have to say? He joked, "They've probably become used to it." And his colleague, Shas MK David Tal, who presided at the meeting, said: "And even a hanged man flutters for a while, and then he gets used to it and calms down." Tal's words are prescient: They describe Israeli society's reaction to its country's treatment of its foreign workers

(c) copyright 2000 Ha'aretz. All Rights Reserved


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