Behind the interior minister's demagoguery lies an attempt to help building contractors by replacing Africans with more profitable labor.
Chinese construction workers building the Carmel Tunnel in Haifa, Israel, December 2007. Photo by Doron Golan
Interior Minister Eli Yishai has made himself out to be the chief spokesman of the nationwide campaign to expel foreigners from Israel. Yet at the same time he approved amendments to agreements with China, Moldova and Sri Lanka, thereby giving the green light for thousands more foreign workers in Israel, according to a report written by Ofer Petersburg in the daily newspaper Yedioth Ahronoth.
No mistake about it: Contractors and manpower companies press, and Yishai does as they request. At the height of the social-justice protests last summer, and with Yishai's approval, the government agreed to let in 6,800 foreign construction workers. It was the Finance Ministry that objected to the proposal and demanded guarantees that the workers not be imported from countries (for example, China) where workers are forced to pay finder's fees, which can cost thousands of dollars per person. Consequently, it was agreed that workers would come from Bulgaria, through direct arrangements between the two nations, without middlemen.
Sounds hunky-dory, right? Except that the building contractors and their staffing agencies foiled the arrangement and 60 workers have come to Israel from Bulgaria so far. This hasn't stopped the Association of Contractors & Builders in Israel from wailing that more foreign workers must be imported. They say the building industry has only 2,500 foreign workers today, though the government-authorized work visa program allows up to 8,000 foreign construction workers.
Why do building contractors prefer Chinese workers in particular? Simply put, these workers are a very important profit source. A Chinese worker will pay $20,000 just to gain entry into Israel, while a Bulgarian worker doesn't have to spend a penny. Simple math reveals that importing 6,000 Chinese workers to Israel allows contractors and the manpower importers they operate to pocket $120 million before a single immigrant has so much as raised a hammer.
Since 2002, economists generally agree that a massive influx of foreign workers into construction and agriculture raises unemployment among Israel's poorer segments, first and foremost Israeli Arabs. The 26,000 Thai workers employed in Israeli agriculture displace thousands of Arab women, whose unemployment rate is 75 percent.
None of this is of any concern to the contractors. They present their underlying economic interests in the guise of a labor shortage. They claim the shortage of labor will jack up housing prices. Their lobby terrorizes the government and buys off public servants. Again and again, the contractors' lobby manages to pass the government resolutions it wants.
Hundreds of thousands of people demonstrated in the streets last summer against exactly this kind of behavior, namely the unacceptable link between capital and government.
The Netanyahu government is supposed to be fighting to reduce unemployment among Israelis and has even set a policy goal to induce more Israeli Arab women to work.
Rabbi Eliyahu Yishai, son of Tunisian inmigrants to Palestine, is the leader of the ultra-orthodox religious Sephardic Shas party
But government resolutions are one thing and reality another. At the same time that Yishai and his coalition partners are engaging in national demagoguery and state at every opportunity that one's own poor matter more than other nations' impoverished masses, in practice they have installed a revolving door for importing and deporting foreign workers.
Instead of importing more unnecessary foreign workers into Israel and inciting the public with racist propaganda, it is incumbent upon the government to work seriously for the benefit of local construction workers.
The government should invest in and develop professional training programs for builders, promote the use of advanced technologies in the construction industry and, if needed, enable African refugees to work at a fair wage. The government must stop bringing chained, indentured laborers from China.