Tuesday, July 12, 2011

Terra Incognita: The Foreign Worker Catch 22 in Israel

The foreign workers’ ‘Catch-22'
In the Jerusalem Post
07/12/2011 23:21

Rights and Responsibility: The migrant workers who choose to come to Israel are adults. It is time we started treating them as such.

Israel is increasingly living in a catch-22 regarding foreign workers and their rights. First of all, it is considered unacceptable to bind foreign workers to their employers. Second, the courts have determined that foreign workers who get pregnant may not be deported under the previous law that voided their work permits if they gave birth. Third, the courts have determined that it is also illegal to deport foreign workers who have just given birth.

The catch-22 is that the foreign workers are, by default, encouraged to have children in order to stay in the country. Once they have children, it becomes impossible to deport them because of all the petitions against deporting their children. For instance, in March 2011 the Interior Ministry postponed deporting foreign workers and their children because it didn’t want to “disrupt the studies of children enrolled in school.” It appears that once a female foreign worker enters the country, it is almost assured that she will not leave, and that ipso facto she and her children will receive unlimited rights to remain.

DISCUSSION ABOUT the foreign workers, of whom there are thought to be more than 300,000, always revolves around their “rights.” When Supreme Court Justice Ayala Procaccia overturned the policy of deporting those that were pregnant or had just had children, she said “it affects [the worker’s] right to be a parent, to have a family and to support herself. The policy is incongruent with Israeli labor laws that safeguard the rights of the woman both during and after birth.” But why does the supposed “right” to a family transcend the laws of a country where one has chosen to come as a worker? Let’s say, for arguments sake, that the foreign workers didn’t look so “foreign” and didn’t come across in photos as “victims.” If they looked like educated Europeans (still foreign, but not that foreign), would their case be as compelling? Do we have much compassion for a European couple that moves to Israel, for whatever reason, has a child here, and which the state subsequently orders deported for overstaying a visa? Would there be an outcry that the child might be yanked out of school? Be honest with yourself. If it was 300,000 Europeans in Tel Aviv and we read about them being deported, wouldn’t we shrug and say “well, they should have obeyed the law.”

So the reality of the foreign round-about is the feeling that somehow they are not educated enough and don’t look responsible enough to read the law and make responsible choices. This is a very real paternalistic, nay racist, reality. I have had American and European non-Jewish friends who got pregnant here or moved here with their children. They understand the strain they are putting the child under by raising it in a temporary foreign environment. Similarly, Americans and Europeans living in the Gulf Arab states, Japan, Mexico or wherever are not considered victims if they are deported, with their children, for overstaying a visa or violating the conditions of their employment contract.

By deporting foreign workers, their “rights” to a family are not being harmed; they are merely being asked to be responsible adults, responsible toward the law and their children. By always passing the buck and keeping them from being deported when pregnant, and then after giving birth, and then once the children are in kindergarten, the courts are merely belittling them and treating them as irresponsibles who can’t make choices about reproduction.

IN THE face of a wave of foreign workers, sense and responsibility has been checked at the border and incoherent paternalism has become the law of the land. We must look at foreign workers as people like us, and demand that they receive not only certain rights but also bear certain responsibilities. Once responsibility is part of the equation, the catch-22 that has become the norm will begin to correct itself.

The writer has a PhD from Hebrew University, and is a fellow at the Jerusalem Institute for Market Studies.