More extreme exploitation of Palestinian workers following dramatic increase in trade in work permits
Position paper submitted to the Inter-Ministerial Committee on Employment Arrangements for Palestinians in the Construction Sector, July 2022
[On July 13, MAAN Executive Director, Assaf Adiv, was asked to present the organization’s position before the Inter-Ministerial Committee on Employment Arrangements for Palestinians in the Construction Sector. The Committee was established following the Interior Minister’s decision on May 31, with the aim of reforming the employment arrangements for Palestinian construction workers, including employment via dedicated labor agencies, to reduce violations in the sector. MAAN and other organizations demanded that the Committee hold public hearings; as a result, a MAAN representative was invited to the Committee deliberations. Adv. Aelad Cahana from the Workers’ Hotline also presented his organization’s position. The Committee that is headed by Adv. Inbal Mashash, director of the Population and Immigration Authority’s Foreign Workers Administration is expected to release its findings by Sep. 30]
The way in which some 100,000 Palestinian workers are employed in Israel is completely unacceptable. As a workers’ organization with extensive activities in the field, MAAN receives daily information from workers, including photos and video clips, showing the extreme crowding at the border crossings and the arbitrary procedures of issuing the permits to work in Israel. Our monitoring of the situation suggests that the increase in work permits granted (reaching a record 120,000), and recent changes that facilitated the granting of such permits, have led to serious deterioration of conditions at the border crossings.
At the same time, Israel has sealed many holes in the separation fence, and tens of thousands of workers who had used them during the last decade are now adding to the overcrowding at the border crossings. For example, after the decision to lower the age of those allowed to apply for a permit (a welcome decision in itself), single men aged 27 and over, who had previously stayed at home or crept through the holes in the fence, are now joining the crowds seeking to enter the Israeli job market, paying thousands each month for a work permit.
MAAN has received reports suggesting that the number of agencies that sell permits in West Bank towns has grown. They charge each worker NIS 2,500 per month and threaten to revoke the permit for those who don’t pay. They also demand open promissory notes, which can be used as a threat to bring the worker before the Palestinian authorities, whose arbitrariness and favoritism are well known.
As a result, more than half of those working in Israel are not officially employed by their de facto employer. One aspect of this system is the criminal aspect, including tax evasion. However, another aspect is the necessarily exploitative employment which leaves the workers unprotected and powerless: they get through the border using the permit they have bought, and then they seek an employer. They are often employed in dangerous work, without insurance or employment security, and fall victim to extreme exploitation and abuse when they are injured or when their age makes them “less efficient”.
It must be emphasized that these are human beings. Fathers and mothers, citizens, brothers and sisters, sons and daughters – people who have a right to live as free humans in dignity are being trampled underfoot each day. Reforms are urgently needed that will put an end this situation, and this must be considered along with the usual security and economic considerations.
The complete failure of the reform
In December 2020, a reform was announced: “Procedure for the employment of Palestinian workers in the Israeli construction sector.” This reform was the result of consultations and was intended to implement a policy which the government decided on in 2016. In other words, these changes were implemented after significant delay, and against the background of a general acknowledgement that the existing system was flawed and needed change.
Article 10b of the reform determines that the permits in the construction sector will be considered as ‘belonging’ to the workers and not the employers, leaving the workers free to move from employer to employer at will. The reform also canceled the upper limit on the number of permits each employer may hold, and it enabled the worker to retain the permit for 60 days after leaving his job (so he could find alternative work). The jewel in the crown of the reform was an app (that was planned to be added to the Al Munaseq general app that serves to communicate and regulate Israeli policies toward Palestinians) that promised to allow workers and employers to communicate directly and thus circumvent the agencies and put an end to – or at least reduce – the illegal trade in permits.
In practice, the situation has only got worse in the last year and a half, and trade in permits has increased. The 60-day grace period for workers has been revealed as useless – even now workers are denied entry into Israel from the moment they stop working with their previous agent, so having a permit for another 60 days is no help. Workers can seek a new employer, but they need to get a single-entry permit to enter Israel – leaving the threat of being denied entry as a power in the employer’s hands.
The failure of the app was significant. For many long months, it was unavailable for technical reasons. In September 2021, the Coordinator of Government Activities in the Territories (COGAT) reported to the Knesset Committee on Foreign Workers that operation of the app was encountering difficulties. In October the same COGAT representative told the Knesset that the app had actually been working since July 2021 and that thousands of workers had already signed on. Finally, last May, the head of COGAT’s Civil Department, Col. Elad Goren, told me at a meeting in his office, that the app had become a tool in the hands of permit traders, and for this reason it had been discontinued.
Following the decision to increase the number of permits once again, in June 2022, and at the same time seal the gaps in the separation fence, we reach the crisis we see today. If steps are not taken at once to fight the trade in permits, the entire arrangement is likely to descend into anarchy, anger and violence.
A ‘green card’ for workers
In the position paper we presented together with the CSO Legal Aid for Palestinians (LEAP) in January 2022, we called for a ‘green card’ for workers. This would in fact be the implementation of the principles noted in the beginning of the reform from December 2020, which proposed transferring the permit to the workers. The advantage of a ‘green card’ is that it would remove employers’ control of the permit and thus also pull the rug from under the agencies and contractors who are engaged in this criminal activity.
When a Palestinian worker requests a magnetic card from his local District Coordination and Liaison office, he pays NIS 120 and receives a card valid for four years. This is not dependent on an employer willing to employ him – though it does still depend on his not being involved (or being investigated for involvement) in criminal or security-related activities. There are still problems here, for example, cards are sometimes confiscated arbitrarily, without justification in terms of security, and thousands are thus prevented from entering Israel. Nevertheless, there is no denying that today there are hundreds of thousands of Palestinians with magnetic cards, people whom the Israeli authorities deem worthy of entering Israel to earn a living and support their families.
We assert that, together with their magnetic cards, such Palestinians should receive a permit to enable them to enter Israel and seek work with whichever employer they choose.
Since the publication of MAAN’s and LEAP’s position paper, we have received hundreds of responses from workers who support the initiative. Here we present some responses that were published on the Facebook page “El Munseq” (the FB of the COGAT) after a video clip was posted there calling on people not to buy permits from permit traders.
“Transfer the permit to the Coordinator [COGAT], with no need for an employer or firm”
خلو التصاريح عن طريق المنسق مباشرة بدون معلم ولا شركة مشغله
“Right, why shouldn’t there be entry to Israel like the magnetic card, with no need for a permit from any firm – i.e. so the permit will be directly from Al Munaseq”
طيب ليش مايكون الدخول على إسرائيل مثل الممغنط بدون تصريح من اي شركة يعني يكون التصريح من المنسق مباشر
“If you care about the issue, grant permits via the Al Munaseq app – it’s easy enough to do this – the worker will work with the employer he chooses – this is the only solution”
إذا هامكو ألامر اعملو التصاريح عن طريق برنامج المنسق وبتقدرو تعملو هالشي مش صعبه والعامل بشتغل مع المشغل يلي بدو اياه هيك بس الحل الوحيد
“With all due respect, what we need is to get the permits for free straight from the Civil Administration or Al Munaseq, and not just the permit for seeking work for two months, after which we have to buy the work permit – grant permits for a longer time, not just for two months – that’s the solution, and that’s the way we’ll put an end to the permit traders”
كل الاحترام لحضراتكم بس يجب اصدار تصاريح عمل لنا من الإدارة المدنية اي من الارتباط الاسرائيلي مجانا وليس فقط تصريح بحث عن عمل لشهرين وبعدها نضطر نشتري تصريح اعملوا لنا تصاريح على طول وليس لشهرين فقط هذا هو الحل حتى يتم القضاء على سماسرة التصاريح
These are just some of the responses from hundreds that show broad agreement among workers regarding the ‘green card’ idea as a solution to the current chaos and as an efficient weapon against the trade in permits.
We face an emergency. We need to take immediate and drastic steps to end the chaos that brings suffering on thousands of workers. We believe that the issue needs to be discussed in consultation with the workers – they are the key factor here. We respectfully propose that the Committee go into the field to talk with the workers and thus better understand their situation. On our part, as an organization that listens to and is in contact with many of them, we call for the acceptance of the ‘green card’ idea, which has the potential to empower the workers and put a stop to trade in permits, thus ending the current chaos in the construction industry.