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Israel Society & Culture: Foreign Workers

Israel's rapid economic development in recent years, coupled with its rising need for labor - foremost in agriculture, constructions and nursing - has recently made the country a target for foreign workers. These people are willing to work for wages that, though lower than the Israeli norm, allow them to save and send money to their families in the countries of origin.

The population of foreign workers in Israel today stands at about 250,000 - of them 100,000 legally in the country, and 150,000 illegals. The latter either come as tourists and stay on, or come legally as foreign workers and overstay their permit, or go to work for higher wages to other employers. Foreign workers account for about 13 percent of the labor force.

Illegal foreign workers come from Romania, Ghana, Nigeria, Colombia, the Philippines, Turkey, Ukraine Russia, and other former Soviet countries, in all from sixty-seven countries worldwide. Residents, even when illegally in the country, are entitled to health and education services and may complain to the police about offenses against them. The police will deal with such complaints, without taking their illegal presence into account.

A majority of illegal foreign workers lives in Tel Aviv, and there are kindergartens, schools and clinics that serve mainly them and their children.

The Ministry of Public Security and the Police enforce punishment of employers who violate the rights of foreign workers and supervise implementation of social rights. The ministry also cooperates with local organizations that operate on behalf of foreign workers. Problems of illegal workers are mainly related to exploitation - terms of employment; living conditions; social benefits that fall short of accepted levels; denial of workers' freedom and/or holding them as hostages; and, in extreme cases, trade in these workers, in contravention of accepted moral norms and mores. Thus, in July 2001 the Knesset passed the Law for the Prevention of Trade in Human Beings, which prescribes a maximum penalty of sixteen years' imprisonment for this offense (twenty years when the victim is a minor).

Israel regards illegal foreign workers mainly as victims and the focus of its policy is to treat the causes of victimization, rather than the results. In order to stem illegal immigration, and above all "white slavery", close and sustained cooperation with the countries of origin, as well as those of transit, is of importance. The authorities have arranged for tougher control procedures, including sophisticated technology, to prevent illegal immigration at the points of entry into the country. Action is also taken to return illegal workers to their countries of origin; a special detention facility, with conditions much better then in ordinary facilities, has been established to hold up to 300 candidates for deportation.

Those arrested for illegal presence in the country have three days in which to lodge an appeal against deportation in court. A hearing, by a representative of the Ministry of the Interior (with the status of a judge) has to take place within 14 days; he has the authority to nullify the deportation order, or to grant release on bail.

Sources: Israeli Foreign Ministry