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16.09.2003 Diaspora News

Recession-Hit Israel Expelling Foreign Workers

By Reuters
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Ghanaian ask For Postponment, but he has to leave TEL AVIV (Reuters) - Israeli police raid a house in an upmarket Tel Aviv suburb, searching under beds and in closets until they find what they are looking for -- a tearful, frightened maid from the Philippines.

As the suspected illegal worker is led away to face deportation, she cries out that she has a daughter at her dwelling in Israel waiting for her. Her employer faces a fine of 10,000 shekels ($2,200).

The raid, broadcast on Israeli television, is part of a government campaign to send tens of thousands of foreign workers packing as the country wallows in a third year of recession amid a global slowdown and a Palestinian uprising for statehood.

Officials say the deportations will ease Israeli unemployment, now at 10.6 percent, setting off a public debate on whether Israelis will agree to take on the low-paying jobs.

Eric Lamptey of Ghana said he is ready to leave on the October date assigned to him. But doctors have told his wife, in the early stages of a high-risk pregnancy, she cannot fly.

"I want her to stay till November or December so that she doesn't miscarry," said Lamptuy. He said police told him the entire family must travel on the given date or risk prison.

No one knows for sure how many foreigners work in Israel, but the government estimates there are close to 300,000, of whom only about 100,000 have valid work permits.

They were initially welcomed with open arms by the government and hailed as an alternative to Palestinians.

Now, Finance Minister Benjamin Netanyahu has called the foreigners a "cancer" while Industry, Trade and Labour Minister Ehud Olmert said: "The damage caused by foreign workers to the Israeli economy is greater than any other damage."

Government advertisements warn of the consequences of employing illegal foreigners.

"The televised images have pained and shocked me," said Edna Levy, who recently fired her cleaning woman from the Philippines for fear of punishment. "There is a complete lack of compassion for people who have been here for years."

According to the Immigration Administration (IA), a division of the police, since the start of the year some 60,000 illegal workers have left, including 17,000 who were deported.

"Our target till the end of the year is to have 80,000 leave," said IA spokesman Rafi Yaffa.

POLICE TARGET CLEANERS AND NANNIES

For several months, police equipped with search warrants have conducted daily raids on buses or at the homes of foreign workers, often breaking down doors or smashing windows.

Now they are going to homes of Israelis suspected of employing foreign cleaners and nannies.

"If our leaders were serious about addressing unemployment, they would not be rounding up foreign workers but taking concrete steps to stimulate growth," said the conservative Jerusalem Post in an editorial.

"If ... removal of foreign workers would greatly raise labor costs in an industry, causing that industry to collapse, the net economic damage could cause more jobs to be lost than are saved," the newspaper said.

Israel's Builders' Association said that because of a manpower shortage, roughly 60 percent of the construction sites in the country were paralyzed or progressing very slowly.

"In the end, it (the government's campaign) will only increase unemployment," said spokeswoman Hagit Klein, noting 310,000 Israelis work in the industry as well as 16,000 legal and 10,000 illegal foreigners.

Workers' rights groups said they have received complaints of police brutality during arrests. Yaffa said complaints were few.

As for raids on Israeli homes, Yaffa said they result from tips from ordinary citizens.

The immigrants come mainly from China, Thailand, the Philippines, Turkey, Romania and Africa. Many were brought here by the government starting in the mid-1990s to work in agriculture, construction and home care for the elderly.

To avoid arresting parents with children, families are being offered the option of registering with the police when they receive a date for leaving. Until that date they can move about freely, and more than 500 families have registered.

Yet even this policy has raised problems.

In late August a Paris-based human rights group said Israeli employers routinely violate the rights of migrant workers, who make up close to 13 percent of the workforce, with conditions in some cases "equivalent to slavery."

Rights groups have appealed to the Supreme Court to cancel the policy of "binding," in which work permits are issued to employers, not workers, leaving them at the mercy of their bosses who sometimes confiscate passports and withhold pay.

"Workers can sue their employers but employers will then fire them and they become illegal," said Sigal Rozen, head of the Israeli non-profit organization Hotline For Migrant Workers.

"Don't believe it," said Interior Minister Avraham Poraz. "If anything goes wrong with an employer and a foreign worker can prove it, then he can get a permit to move to someone else."

Poraz told Reuters that Israel recognized it cannot do without foreigners in agriculture and home nursing but the goal is to reduce the number to 150,000.

"It's just an economical issue, it's not that we don't like them. I have a lot of sympathy for them but unfortunately they are taking work from Israelis," he said.

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