Sojourners in the Holy Land: Israeli Society Wrestles With Migrant Labor

07/09/2010 03:39 pm ET | Updated May 25, 2011

Israel's history is rooted in the politics of migration and diaspora, in the relentless struggle of Jewish and Arab communities to lay claim to the most contested corner of the globe. But today, a different kind of migrant is precariously staking out the crossroads of the world.

As the New York Times reports, unrest among migrant Chinese laborers in Israel points to growing friction between a relatively affluent, ostensibly democratic society, and the marginalized workforce that subsidizes it.

Originally designed to replace poor Palestinian workers with poor migrants, Israel's short-term labor migration system has generated yet another layer of inequality on top of anti-Arab and Muslim apartheid, one that exposes imported labor to abuse and coercion, often without legal recourse.

Their plight actually came to light years ago in a 2003 report by the International Federation for Human Rights (FIDH) and the Euro-Mediterranean Human Rights Network (EMHRN). The researchers found that Israel harbored hundreds of thousands of migrants, recruited from countries like China, the Philippines, Thailand and Romania, who were extremely vulnerable to exploitative conditions and poverty wages. The majority of them were undocumented, many having lost their work permits when they changed or lost their jobs.

Typically, activists say that legions of Asian and European migrants pay fees of several thousand dollars in hopes of entering temporary work in sectors like construction, farming or domestic help.

But, according to the report, in many cases the jobs that they'd been sold on by sketchy employment agencies never materialized, and those who found work had to chain themselves to an employer who might literally hold them hostage by confiscating their passports. Despite both international labor standards and Israeli laws designed to protect migrants, migrant workers were routinely deprived of minimum wage, overtime pay, and social benefits . Their political disenfranchisement, moreover, meant that “these rules are almost totally ignored, and because the employee is tied to the employer, the latter can ignore the rules and treat foreign workers as they please.”

Unfortunately, researchers noted that efforts to defend migrants' human rights weren't aided by the conservative opposition, which complained that  under open labor migration, “the national character of the state is being sacrificed for economic interests.”

The FIDH and EMHRN report summarized the irony of Israel's economic evolution:

Initially, after the creation of the State of Israel in 1948, Palestinians within Israel and then Palestinians from the Occupied Territories (after the occupation of Gaza and the West Bank in 1967) were employed. But due to closures of border crossings and security concerns associated with the first and second Intifadas, Israel increasingly turned to migrant labour to replace the Palestinian workers that were prevented from entering Israel....

Therefore, the use of migrant labour in Israel presents two principal problems: to migrant workers, whose rights are systematically violated due to the structure of the migrant labour market; and to Palestinians, both from the Occupied Territories and Israeli citizens, whose lives and livelihoods are strictly ruled by the Israeli occupation.

Of course, the parallels between the oppression of Palestinians and the exploitation of migrants should seem familiar to American observers. The United States doesn't have an official segregation policy, but the enforced misery of undocumented immigrants plays a similar role in upholding class hierarchy.

And like its chief ally, Israel weighs the desire for cheap labor against ingrained resistance to social pluralism, while rendering its many victims invisible. In a Haaretz op-ed about judicial recommendations for labor-immigration reform, Sigal Rosen, of the migrant workers' hotline Moked, reflected on the human costs of political intransigence:

For all the harsh words of the justices, business goes on as usual, and migrant workers who paid a fortune for the right to be legally employed in the Holy Land continue to lose their legal status because of the binding arrangement and are deported.

Could Israel's labor establishment challenge business as usual? The union Histadrut recently moved to allow full membership for migrants, potentially enabling access to advantages such as collective bargaining. The labor federation (which has its own controversial history) has supposedly been reaching out to both Chinese and Palestinian workers.

But although union leaders may recognize the pragmatic benefits of incorporating workers of other ethnicities as dues-paying members, there's reason to doubt whether internal attitudes have shifted, according to Dana Shaked with the worker advocacy group Kav La'oved. Shaked told In These Times that Histadrut's policy change “is of course blessed,” but in no way shows that Israeli society is overcoming its intolerance:

We believe that the Israeli people can not and should not ignore the migrant workers who came here legally and who take care of our elderly, build our houses and pick our fruits. We do believe that the Israeli society is a Zionist one and suffers from ethnic anxiety and xenophobia.

Could real solidarity ever emerge through collective activism among Israeli, Palestinian and migrant workers? Aside from its intractable geopolitical conflicts, Israel's social experiment faces yet another test. As migration reshapes the workforce, a state founded on exclusion must ask whether it has room for all the laboring hands that have molded it.

Cross-posted from In These Times.