Photo: Karin Magen

Since 1990 hundreds of thousands of men and women from all over the world have come to Israel to work. Most of them stay here for a few years and return to their countries willingly. Each year, Israel issues a quota for the number of licenses to employ migrant workers in the fields of construction and agriculture.

In Israel, the status of migrant workers is incredibly shaky. Even after over 30 years of recruiting workers from abroad, the government’s policy is contradictory and often fluctuates as a result of pressures by employers and recruitment agencies. Even after several rulings by the Supreme Court, which determined that migrant workers have basic rights, authorities do not enforce the law and turn a blind eye to their abuse, extortion and fraud during their recruitment and the process of bringing them to Israel. In addition, unlike the common practice in Western countries, migrant workers are denied the option of receiving Israeli citizenship because Israel’s immigration policy is guided by the Law or Return, which gives citizenship to Jews only.

Until the late 1990s Israel employed Palestinians from the occupied territories who were given low wages for manual labor Israelis did not want to do (mainly construction and agriculture). During the Gulf War (1990-1991), Israel enacted a complete closure of the occupied territories, and over the next years, the State began actively and gradually replacing Palestinian workers in the agriculture, construction and industry sectors with migrant workers. In addition, the privatization of health services in the 1990s led Israel to begin recruiting caregivers from abroad, because those were and still are willing to work for low wages for an “around-the-clock” job.

The number of permits to employ migrant workers grew rapidly. In 1993, Israel issued 20,000 permits; in 1996, the number reached 106,161 permits. Israel quickly rose to the top of the list as the Western country with the largest percentage of imported migrant workers. In 2001, the number of migrant workers in Israel reached about 250,000, many of whom lost their legal status due to the Binding Arrangement that tied a worker’s visa to his employer. Under this arrangement, migrants who left an employer lost their legal status and faced deportation. A massive deportation campaign, the economic slowdown and the deteriorating security situation resulted in a significant drop in the number of migrant workers in Israel during the early 2000s.

As of October 2013, there are 69,500 authorized migrant workers in Israel, and in addition, 14,800 workers who had visas but lost their legal status. In addition, there are 93,000 undocumented migrants who entered Israel as tourists but did not leave the country once the visa expired, most of them from the former Soviet Union.