Authorities fail to stop permit dealers from exploiting Palestinian workers

The arrangements for Palestinian construction workers to enter Israel came up last week before the Knesset Committee on Foreign Workers. The background consists in serious problems, especially the illegal trade […]

The arrangements for Palestinian construction workers to enter Israel came up last week before the Knesset Committee on Foreign Workers. The background consists in serious problems, especially the illegal trade in entry permits. The authorities had announced a reform of the permit regime for construction workers in December 2020, promising a mechanism to stop the trade, but so far to no avail.

The Knesset Committee meeting, which took place on Tuesday, October 26, 2021, was the second dedicated to monitoring the December 2020 reform and its implementation.

At the first hearing, on September 13, representatives of the Israeli Civil Administration (CA) admitted that no progress had been made in the development of an app that would allow workers to communicate directly with Israeli employers. This app,  a central part of the reform, had promised to eliminate the trade in permits..

CA representatives said then that the app is not yet active for technical reasons, refusing to speculate on a date. This time, by contrast, the CA’s two representatives claimed that the app had been operating since July 2021. Furthermore, they claimed that 10,000 Palestinians had already registered on it. The obvious contradiction between what the same CA representatives said in September and what was presented this time created a cloud of suspicion.

Representatives of labor and human rights’ organizations that are active in the field testified before the committee that the report’s validity was doubtful. Spokespersons from Kav LaOved, the Association for Civil Rights, MAAN Workers Association, the National Histadrut and the General Histadrut said that not a single Palestinian worker known to them was aware of the app. They questioned the rosy report, doubting its ability to improve the workers’ situation. MAAN’s Executive Director, Assaf Adiv, brought evidence that employees are now asked to pay up to NIS 3,500 in brokerage fees, compared to the 2,500 shekels that the dealers exacted from them before the reform. According to him, the reform has worsened the workers’ situation while raising new bureaucratic hurdles.

Today 65,000 Palestinians are employed in Israel’s construction industry with official permits. (This number does not include between 40 and 50 thousand who work in various jobs without papers, crossing from the West Bank to Israel every morning through gaps in the Separation Barrier.) The number will soon increase by 9000, with the aim of soon reaching 80,000. Given the massive trade in permits, it is estimated that the need for more of them would eventually create more dealers and thus increase the illegal trade.

Well documented reports – including onet by the Bank Of Israel (Sep. 2019) and the ILO annual report form June 2021, “The situation  of  workers of the occupied Arab territories,” (see p. 27) – showed that the permit trade has created a black market with a circulation of ca. 500 million shekels per year. This huge sum is divided between Israeli employers and Palestinian dealers.

Nevertheless, this exploitative and illegal trade in permits came up only as a side issue in the Knesset committee. When they discussed the issue it was clear that the authorities showed impotence and lack of interest. A representative of the Tax Authority claimed that he had only learned about it the day before (?!). A representative of the Population and Immigration Authority stated that an employer who trades in permits would be invited to a hearing and, if he is found guilty, his employment license would be revoked for three years. This claim was harshly criticized by Attorney Michal Tadjer of Kav LaOved. She told the committee that, following her request under the Freedom of Information Act, she had learned that since 2018 only one employer has lost his license as a result of trade in permits. Tadjer mentioned a shop that sells permits near the Army checkpoint at the Eyal Crossing near Qalqilya, without any interference from the authorities.

MAAN’s Executive Director called for an end to making Palestinians dependent on employers’ permits. He suggested that any worker with security clearance should be permitted to enter, seek a job, and contact employers freely.

At the end of the meeting, Knesset member Ibtisam Mara’ana, the head of the Committee, called for the establishment of a joint committee of government ministries to act against permit dealing. However, the Knesset Committee on Foreign Workers lacks any binding authority, and it is highly doubtful that this call will lead to actions on the ground.

The bottom line, as we in MAAN see it, is that as long as permit dealers can operate freely without deterrence from the authorities, not inhibited by fear of investigation and punishment, there is no chance of bringing about significant change in the permit regime from which Palestinian workers suffer.

אודות Wac-Maan