Israel intensifies efforts to deport foreign workers

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But work is scarce and time is running out: In October, Israeli police plan to step up deportations of illegal foreign workers, and James' work permit expired six months ago.

"I want to leave the country," he says. But "I don't have enough money for a ticket. I don't want somebody to dump me in a prison. I'm willing to work for my ticket or I'll go home immediately if the government pays."

Until recently, there were some 250,000 foreign workers in Israel. Only about 100,000 of them were legal.

Israeli officials say a decision to stop renewing permits has reduced the number of legal foreign laborers to about 75,000.

Starting in October, Israel plans to deport 1,000 illegal workers each month, after expelling 500 per month during the past year. In 1999, authorities hope to deport 2,000 workers a month, and eventually they want to double that.

The drive to deport foreign workers stems from public criticism that their swelling numbers, against a backdrop of rising unemployment, are creating a social time bomb.

Activists on behalf of foreign workers say the deportation policy has been accompanied by rhetoric that reeks of racism.

Official Labor Ministry press releases have compared the expulsion of foreign workers to "holiday cleaning" or "burning the chametz," the ritual of burning bread and other leavened products before Passover.

In addition, pro-worker activists say setting up deportation camps is a cruel way to treat people who were let in by the state, often exploited by employers and have contributed to the economy by doing jobs that most Israelis avoid.

James, who has a degree in agricultural science, left his wife and four children in Nigeria two years ago to work in Israel.

He spent most of his time cleaning houses and doing what he describes as the "ugly jobs" shunned by Israelis. Like many foreign workers, he has also been cheated. After cleaning one family's home for three months, they refused to pay.

"If foreign workers are paid regularly, it will be easy for us to leave," he says. "If they embezzle us, we will just stay longer."

Israel began importing workers en masse during 1993, when prolonged closures of the West Bank and Gaza Strip prevented Palestinians from working in Israel. Before the closures, Palestinians filled menial jobs in the construction, agriculture and service sectors.

Encouraged by Israeli policies, workers arrived from developing countries all over the world. In Tel Aviv's dingy pedestrian mall of Neve Sha'anan, where lonely foreign workers pass their free time nursing beers and thinking of home, a hand-written sign on an international telephone call center advertises rates to more than 20 developing countries, ranging from Romania to Ghana to Thailand.

Since the foreign workers' arrival in Israel, abuse of them has reached epidemic proportions. Many building contractors house laborers in cramped conditions, often a dozen to a small room in wall-to-wall bunk beds. Although they are paid the legal minimum wage, workers are often charged exorbitant rates to live in these accommodations.

In the months before a foreign worker returns home, many employers withhold wages. And most building companies illegally confiscate passports from "legal" workers when they arrive, to guarantee they cannot change jobs.

But there is little reason for such action because under Israeli law, a legal foreign worker may not change employers. Those who do automatically become illegal workers.

"In Israel, it is actually better for a worker to be illegal than legal," says Hanna Zohar, director of Kav Laoved, a hotline that provides legal assistance to foreign workers.

Zohar objects to the deportation plan. "Somebody let these people into the country. The Israeli economy has profited from them," she says. "These people came to Israel to work. They are not criminals and do not deserve to be treated like criminals."

Several Israeli shop owners on the Neve Sha'anan pedestrian mall agree. "If we go abroad to work and we don't cause trouble, we wouldn't expect to be thrown out like this," says Michel Barkhalifa, who owns a barber shop.

But Israeli authorities are determined to press ahead with the plan. The government wants Israelis and Palestinians to replace the foreigners, even though few Israelis want these jobs and Palestinian labor would be affected if closures of the West Bank and Gaza were again imposed.

"We are not being brutal and will expel the workers in the most humane way possible," says Efraim Cohen, head of the Labor Ministry's foreign workers department. "No state will allow foreigners to work without a permit. Can you work in the United States without a green card?"