Illegal in Israel – The story of Juan and Josie

Juan and Josie
Juan and Josie (© Eric Beauchemin)

300,000 foreigners went to Israel in the 1990’s. They were replacing Palestinian labourers who had been barred from entering Israel after the outbreak of the intifada or Palestinian uprising. The foreigners paid up to $15,000 for the right to enter and work in Israel. By 2004, two-thirds of them were illegal, and the government was beginning to expel them. Juan, Josie and their three children from the Philippines feared that they too might be deported.

Producer: Eric Beauchemin

Original broadcast: September 1, 2004


Radio Netherlands, the Dutch International Service, presents “Illegal in Israel: The Story of Juan and Josie”. The programme is produced by Eric Beauchemin.

I came first, like two months before her. And I told her maybe it’s better for you to come here also so that we can save money for the family because there’s no work in the Philippines. I came as a tourist and then I saw here the condition of work, and they pay very nice. Compared to the Philippines, it’s a lot of money, so we decided to stay.

Home for Juan and Josie for the past 8 years has been a suburb of Tel Aviv. In the 1990’s, 300,000 foreigners went to Israel in search of work. The immigrants were replacing Palestinian labourers who had been barred from entering Israel after the outbreak of the intifada or Palestinian uprising. Jobs were for there for the picking, says Dr. Galia Sabar of the Hotline for Migrant Workers in Israel.

Dr. Galia Sabar, Hotline for Foreign Workers
Dr. Galia Sabar, Hotline for Foreign Workers (© Eric Beauchemin)

It was the Rabin government’s decision to close the border for Palestinian workers, mainly in two fields: agriculture and construction. So very short after the decision, there was a strong need for labourers. That’s why the Israeli government decided for the first time to bring in international labourers. The migrant workers come from certain countries. Why these particular countries, for example China, the Philippines, Thailand? It started with Thai workers in agriculture because of their knowledge and their probably stamina, ability and their willingness to work long hours in very uneasy climate conditions which most of the agriculture farms in Israel are. So that’s where it started with Thailand. And in the construction it started with Romania and Turkey, where probably there was the knowledge and the know-how and then it moved into China. And from there, it’s just rolled. I mean, the areas that people needed work expanded, mainly into home care and nursing the elder and the sick, and then, of course, like in any other country, there was a spill-over into other fields of menial work.

I’m a cook. You found a job as soon as you arrived or did it take a while? No, no. Actually it’s not hard then because the demand for the foreign workers then is very high. They stop you in the streets, you know. In the bus and in the street and they ask you would you like to work for me? Even the simplest Israeli will take you for at least two hours. I don’t know why. It was a trend then.

Officially, Israeli companies have to obtain permits from the Ministry of Labour to hire foreign workers. The companies then contact Israeli employment agencies who use middlemen to recruit workers abroad. It’s big business, says Ela Keren of the Open University in Tel Aviv.

Ela Keren, Open University in Tel Aviv
Ela Keren, Open University in Tel Aviv (© Eric Beauchemin)

Every migrant worker pays for getting the job in Israel. We’re talking about thousands of dollars. Chinese workers pay $10,000 and sometimes more. And it is illegal. The employers and the manpower companies, the employment agencies, they all benefit from it. Many people in the government are involved in getting the benefits from it, including the previous minister of labour.

500 Israeli manpower agencies are involved in the recruitment business. It’s estimated that they earn about $500 million a year in commissions.

The two main lobbies – the agriculture and the construction – are extremely strong in Israel. And there is a lot of money going into the system. And these sectors are not willing to give up this whole issue of selling visas and work permits. And the other thing is that the economy in Israel is gaining a lot from employing these people in minimum salaries and even less and having the market go on in spite of the intifada and all the political situation.

The foreign workers sign contracts promising them one or two years’ employment with a salary of at least $650, that’s the minimum wage in Israel. But in many cases, the contracts are just designed to get the foreign worker through immigration at Ben Gurion Airport. Juan paid $4000 to go to Israel.

$1000 for the ticket and $3000 for the middlemen, for the people who are arranging the papers. They’ll contact some companies here, like high-tech companies, agro-industrial companies, whatever that is, that has connections with the Philippines embassy. You’re officially invited by a company in Israel actually. So the immigration in Ben Gurion will let you get inside because you have the invitation already. But when you come here, you just attend one exhibition, and that’s it. You don’t go anymore. It’s like a bogus invitation from a certain office or something like this. And when we come here, we just get out of the programme and we stay here illegally.

But most migrants do actually work for the companies that hired them.

In Israel what is unique is that the worker is tied to an employer, not to a company and not to a field of work such as construction or agriculture within which he could change employers. It was thought to provide a better control over migrant workers, despite the fact that it creates the opposite because this situation encourages employers not to comply with the law regarding protection of migrant workers’ rights, not to pay them, not to pay them on time, not to pay full salary, to provide them with subhuman conditions of work and living because the employer knows that the worker has to stay with him if he wants to retain his legal status.

Not everyone, of course, gets a raw deal. In old people’s homes like this one, it’s common to see Filipino women. They come every morning with their elderly charges, spend several hours at the rest home, and then take them back to the family home in the afternoon. They earn anywhere from $700 to $1000 a month, and their employers generally ensure that they have the proper papers.

But two-thirds of foreign workers in Israel are illegal and run the risk of being deported. Many of the migrant workers borrow money to go to Israel. If they return empty handed, it’s much more serious than just losing face, says Herzel Hagay, who used to be in charge of deporting illegal foreign migrants from Israel. He travelled extensively to see the conditions in the migrant workers’ home countries. He was particularly struck by the situation in China where migrants borrow from family members and loan sharks to raise the money to go to Israel.

They have to work at least two years free of charge because they have to return this money back. And then if it something happens to you, the employer didn’t pay your rights and you leave your employer, then you are illegal and the police will deport you. And then you have to return back the money to all the people in China. There is a very bad things that we heard about. A lot of people that we deport them and they return to China without the money that they loaned, and there’s a very not nice things. EB: Like what? Some of them told me that they want to kill them.

We hop from one employer to another. EB: And why were you changing jobs? Because the employers weren’t paying you or you were having problems? At first, it’s not like that. I got a boss before. He was a hero in the Israeli war, but he got imprisoned in Egypt for two years and he got crazy. Maybe because of that psychological trauma, he gets back to his employees. EB: What was he doing? He’s kicking us. He’s cursing us. I’ll chop you three times and send you back to the Philippines. Basically he hits them physically in the kitchen. And the next time, they were not paying anymore. So I went to work for a catering and I was caught there. So I was sent back to the Philippines. And then after two months – because it’s not strict then to come here – so I came back. EB: Did you have to pay another $4000 to come here? Of course. EB: You couldn’t simply buy a plane ticket and come? No, you have to have arrangements with something like hotels, with a certain office to make an invitation, bogus invitations. EB: So you were paying for the flight but also a work permit basically. Not the work permit, but for the illegal smugglers, illegal human smugglers to come here to make their processing of whatever.

Illegal workers are constantly being deported, but there’s a steady stream of new immigrants arriving in the country, says Ela Keren. She’s writing her doctoral thesis on the slave trade.

We call it the revolving door because on the one hand, migrant workers are deported. On the other hand, new migrant workers enter with the approval of the government. This is one of the ideas, to have a very flexible, cheap labour force, without any rights, without even a knowledge of his rights. And here again, we asked the government to provide the workers as they enter Israel with the Israeli rights, with the addresses they can turn to in case their rights are violated. Until now, nobody bothered to do that. And they authorised the employers, who have the least incentive to do it, to give this knowledge to their workers. This is another aspect of why conditions of slavery, modern slavery have been created in Israel by the government’s policy itself.

According to Shevi Korzen, the executive director of the Hotline for Migrant Workers, the recruitment business has become so profitable that employers and middlemen are bringing in foreigners even though there is no work for them in Israel.

Shevi Korzen, executive director for the Hotline for Foreign Workers
Shevi Korzen, executive director for the Hotline for Foreign Workers (© Eric Beauchemin)

There have been quite a few police investigations into the issue of bribery and unlawful deeds, I would say, of people very high up. Some of them are parliament members and some of them are people who are very high up in the Ministry of Labour and the Ministry of Interior involving the permits. These permits are worth a lot of money and there’s a lot of corruption involved around this. So why isn’t something done about it? Is it because political parties or politicians benefit from this and so they’re stopping any type of change? I don’t know if they benefit from it directly. Certainly not all of them, I think. But certainly the groups that gain a lot from this, which are the construction workers and agricultural specifically have very, very strong lobbies within the parliament. They’re very good friends of some of the politicians and on the other hand, you find the migrant workers which have absolutely no political power, so why should anyone really stand up for their rights when it’s obviously more worthwhile to look after the interests of these two groups.

There was a period where the media was the main voice giving examples of how the system is really awkward, what it results in: examples of confiscation of passports, example of torture, yet nothing was done. And I think the public acknowledges this situation, but somehow relates to it as some sort a foreign issue that doesn’t concern us, wrongly, I believe. Again the fact that they are not Israelis and especially they’re not Jews somehow opens the door to exploitation, etc.

Israelis’ interest in the problems facing foreign workers decreased even further in 2000, following the collapse of the Oslo peace process and the outbreak of the 2nd Palestinian uprising. It was the beginning of a painful period for Israelis, Palestinians and migrant workers, like Juan and Josie.

By then, the situation is getting worse. There are bombings already. The second intifada came. The bombings are coming to the restaurants, not in the autobuses anymore. So customers are not coming. We are not getting paid because there’s no customer, no money coming in. So I have to hop from one job to another, until eventually I got unemployed for almost 2, 3 months, sometimes in one time. And be employed for 2 months again and not getting paid. You know, so it’s like a cycle already. EB: During the good days, how much were you earning a month? $1700, but I’m working like 16 hours a day. EB: Were you sending a lot of this money back to the Philippines or was it simply for yourself to live? Actually the expenses with only the kids like medicine, the house because we have to have our own house. Unlike other illegals, they are staying in one place all of them, we can’t do that because it’s not human-like or family-like in a sense, so we decided to get our own house. So only the expenses itself is sometimes it’s not enough for us.

Juan has been out of work for over a year now. He stays at home looking after their three children, while his wife Josie goes out to earn a living.

Juan and Josie
Juan and Josie (© Eric Beauchemin)

I’m cleaning houses. Every day. Every day. I earn, the basic salary I get is 1200 dollars. And I get extra jobs with the rest of her family, with her children and with her mother. So I’m exclusive with the family. So I earn may around 1500 all in all in a month. EB: Is that enough for you and your entire family? Hand to mouth. You know, it just passes like this. I get my salary the 1st. Everything is finished by the 5th. Something like this. EB: So how do you survive the rest of the month? I get extra jobs during the weekdays, in the afternoons. That’s what keeps us up for the basic, for the food, for the water. But for the house and the big expenses, it has to wait till the 1st of the month.

In 2002, the government decided that Juan, Josie, their three children and the other 200,000 illegal migrants in Israel had overstayed their welcome.

It was a very strong call from various parties that said that this would be the answer for unemployment because unemployment rates in Israel have really gone very high in the past four years, from three to four to almost ten percent. So they were looking for quick solutions instead of looking into the problems of the Israeli economy and making the connection between the economic situation and the political situation, instead of dealing with THE problem. It was a scapegoat to say, oh, it’s because of the migrant workers. Let’s kick them out and then there’ll be no unemployment.

Herzel Hagay was in charge of implementing the deportation policy.

According to the government decision, they should deport at least 5,000 a month illegal foreign workers. And unfortunately there is 400 policemen who are waking every morning and that’s their mission, the job, to deport 5000. Now they deport 2000 a month. I can tell you that around 1000 people working to deport these people. It’s very stupid. We can solve the problem without all the deportations. In my opinion, they are victims in this situation. We can enforce the law against the manpower and the employers, to increasing the supervision at the checkpoints, borders.

Hagay made his views known, but he was ignored. Eventually he resigned and became an ardent defender of the rights of Israel’s illegal immigrants. On the streets of big cities like Tel Aviv, there are fewer and fewer Asians and Africans. Men in particular are likely to get stopped by the immigration police. For the past year, Juan hasn’t left his home during the day.

It’s like a prisoner in my own house, something like this. EB: But when was the last time you went out on the streets? I go out like 2 hours, 3 hours…when the sun is down when it’s dark already You know, like now, I’m a nocturnal person. I can’t sleep in the night. I only sleep in the morning. First of all because of the situation. Secondly, I really can’t sleep any more because I’m just thinking. That’s it. I am afraid. I am afraid because there are contradicting rumours, you know, that they said that they won’t take those with children and some said that they will take those with children. But I don’t have a choice really, so we just go out and take the risk. I was once stopped by the police, and they took my passport number and my children’s numbers also, and they said the next time they will catch me, they don’t care what happens to my kids, they will put me in the airplane and send me home. They don’t care what happens to the children. So then I was really scared.

You’re supposed to have a hearing within 24 hours of your arrest. However, these hearings are held without any translators. So very often they really have no meaning. And they’re supposed to check and to see that you are indeed in the country illegally. But as I said, being illegal can mean that you still have a valid visa but you’re not working for the employer that you were supposed to.

The immigration police had a programme after two weeks that I was questioned, they had a programme that they wanted all the families to register, and they wanted to give us time to prepare. So like this, the children wouldn’t be traumatised, you know, things like this because they’re really breaking the doors in the middle of the night with children or without children, they don’t care. So I was scared already because of what the police said that they won’t care what happens to my children if they question me again the next time. So my husband and I decided we have to register. And I have to ask them some time to give us at least six months or you know, to prepare and everything, all the things and everything. So we went and registered but it didn’t really work out the way we planned.

And then afterwards you will be taken to a detention centre. There, you will be asked if there are any monies owed to you and if there are, then someone will perhaps will try to call the employer and obtain the money, but this is really a matter of the goodwill of the employer. If you have no money for the ticket, the government will buy you a ticket.

We went even to Ramleh, the main immigration office there. We told them that we have problems with money. And they said, look, we only give free tickets to those who were caught. And we told them, look, we’re here in the building anyway. We’re surrounded with police. We will go down to the main entrance and then take the whole family. So like this we’re caught, give us the tickets. And they said, no, we don’t do that. It’s not a nice feeling to get caught. And I said, but you’re saying that… Maybe you can extend us for two, three months for me to also to work, to get the plane tickets for us. ‘No, you can’t work’. So how can we go home decently if I can’t buy my own plane ticket? They won’t let me. It’s like a contradiction in words. They’re saying you have to go home now. You have to get the money now. But where will I get the money?

And as soon as your documents can be obtained – if you have a valid passport that’s quick; if not they’ll approach your consulate. As soon as you have valid documents you will be put on a plane and deported. If you’re lucky, then you will be brought before some sort of judicial review that there is in the prison, but the need to bring someone before judicial review is only within 14 days so it’s very likely that you will be deported even before that. And again, these judicial reviews are held without translators. So, it’s quite a problem. I mean, very often we find, especially with the Chinese workers that they cannot even say that there is a problem or say that they are here legally.

They don’t allow us to work. They said, look, this temporary permit that we will give you for two months, you won’t be caught in the streets if you show this to the police, but you cannot work. So it’s stupid. We told them how can we earn our money if we won’t work. They said borrow from your friends. We told them who will loan us money if we’re not working?

They’re just put on a plane and if they have money, that’s great. If not, they’re not. And obviously they’re being deported to perhaps the capital and sometimes people are deported when they don’t even have enough money to travel from the capital to their home town.

We understand the situation of Israel in the sense that unemployment is really rising and all of these problems with the Palestinians and everything. All of the illegals have to go. We have to go. But the thing is, have a bit of compassion in a sense. Give us one year or two years and everything and afterwards we go home, everybody is peaceful. Everybody is calm. Everybody doesn’t have any problems. And we can go home with dignity in our hearts, in the sense that we saved a little bit money for the children and our future also.

Not only are there so many violations of human rights but it costs a lot of money to the taxpayer at times when Israeli is suffering from a definite shortage of funds. All of this is being paid for by the taxpayers while the only people that are really gaining from this are small interest groups. They get all the gains by bringing in the migrant workers and then Israeli society, the whole society pays for the damage.

Definitely there are terrible loopholes and it’s crying out that these irrational decisions. And one decision that the government is doing is totally contradicting the other. I mean, there’s no clear policy. And that’s the bottom line. There’s no clear policy about migrant workers in Israel or migrant labourers. So when there’s no clear policy and no rational behind it, it’s just decisions that are being made according to the current events and the current needs.

The contradictions in Israeli immigration policy are perhaps best illustrated by the existence of Mesila, the Centre for Information and Assistance for the Foreign Community. It was established in 1999 with funding from the municipality of Tel Aviv. Adi Ezov is one of Mesila’s community workers.

Adi Ezov, Mesila
Adi Ezov, Mesila (© Eric Beauchemin)

The idea is that as long as they are here, we can’t ignore their existence and we have to give them their rights. What has been the result of the deportations for the migrant community here? I think that there is a very big moral problem. There used to be a very strong community. We are talking about people that are working and also that they have networks to help themselves. The immigration police created a situation when first of all people are afraid, Israelis are afraid to hire migrant workers and for the first time the migrant workers really became a welfare society. And also it destroyed all the networking of the community because the people who are left here are individuals. Everyone is trying to struggle by himself. We have women here that their husbands was deported or are staying in prison and they don’t have food to give to their children, and from a community, it became lots of individuals trying to struggle.

Mesila - Aid and Information Centre for Migrant Workers and Refugees
Mesila – Aid and Information Centre for Migrant Workers and Refugees (© Eric Beauchemin)

The Israeli government and the Israeli society they gave us this impression that they needed us for indefinite time. It’s not like 10 years ago they are catching people, 7 years ago they’re catching people. It’s just a year. A year and a half, suddenly they decided they wanted to do this. They didn’t give us even a hint that we are going to catch you if you are an illegal worker. As a matter of fact, they’re encouraging us. I know a lot of people here that are cleaning the houses of the police. And I know some people who are working for special forces in the army.

The government declined to comment on its immigration policy. Ordinary Israelis simply accept the contradictions, says Dr. Sabar of the Hotline for Migrant Workers. Otherwise they’d have to ask themselves disturbing questions about the very essence of their homeland.

We were established as a Jewish state, as a safe haven for the Jewish people after the Holocaust. So to open it now for the sake of international migrant workers would never be the issue. I mean it has been challenged many times on other grounds, on the whole issue of who is a Jew and even then there’s so many detouring ways of staying here without really opening the law of return and the criteria for who’s a Jew. So definitely the government is not going to open it and go into this really, really very fundamental question because it’s like a non-question. We are a Jewish state.

I want to convert to Judaism. That is the truth and I told my husband that but he has a different…because I like the discipline. She doesn’t want to be an Israeli, but she wants to be a Jew. She wants to convert to Judaism. It must be crazy, but I even asked my boss, you know, maybe you can adopt me or maybe you can talk to somebody, not because of the legality of everything but because of the religion itself. It’s really pure. We even contacted some rabbis to ask them if they are willing to have me as a convert and they said, look, you are an illegal worker here. For sure they won’t because they would think first that you only wanted it to become legal here.

Because they’re here, we have to deal with it and find a way of either inventing a new criteria. They’re not Israel citizens, and they’re not residents. I don’t know. The government has to find maybe a new status that has within it the basic rights of any and every human being because I really don’t believe that the state of Israel can have 300,000 or half a million workers that have no legal status, that have no clear identity. We can’t have it if we still want to maintain the Jewish character of the State of Israel.

We’re not going home one by one or two by two. We’re going home as a family. That’s the point of being a family, to go home as a group. Let everybody go, but altogether, but not like first the father, that’s what the way they’re doing it now. They’re arresting only the father and the child and the mother are staying. It’s crazy. What’s the point of getting the father if you don’t get the children and the mother.

It’s immoral the way it’s done. There are a lot of violations of human rights. Just last week there was a lady who was incarcerated because she was an illegal migrant worker. Why treat them as criminals? They’re not. And she broke her two front teeth while being in prison. And she was told…she was taken to a doctor. And in fact she was taken to the airport and deported with her teeth broken, bleeding. And this is just one example out of thousands of violations of human rights here. You know, the government on the one hand claims that Israel is a refuge for Jews who themselves suffered violations of human rights and were persecuted, while the historical irony and very, very sad one for me as an Israeli to see my country treats others just as bad and sometimes worse.

They told us look, we cannot promise the future of your children. The time will come that we will send you home with your children and it will be traumatising to the children. They’re trying to scare us psychologically. So we told them, look, we’re not going to move out of the apartment. We’re not going to change our address. We’re not going to change our telephone numbers. We’re still there. Let them catch us and let them catch the children. Till now, knock on wood, they didn’t come. I hope not, please. We hope not. We really hope not.

“The Story of Juan and Josie” was produced by Eric Beauchemin. This has been a Radio Netherlands’ presentation.