Appeal to international organisations -
Stop the China-Israel migrant worker scam!

Submitted by Moshe’ Machover
Dated: 21/12/2001

Kav La’Oved wishes to point international attention to recent publications, which expose a silent, legalised, and foul co-operation between the Chinese and Israeli governments.

Tens of thousands of workers are brought from China to Israel. These workers borrow thousands of dollars to pay for promised employment. As they meet their prospective employers, however, over half of them find that they have no real jobs. They remain penniless and without shelter. They are not allowed to work for another employer and are destined to be arrested for seeking alternative illegal employment. Eventually they will be deported back to China, where they will face unpayable debts. The press reports uncover the political and economic interests behind this legalised scam. They outline the Chinese negligence as well as Israeli sinister exploitation.

Kav La’Oved is asking you to join the protest against both governments, and against this systematic violation of human rights. We require international exposure, protest letters, and other direct and indirect means of pressure. We believe that a strong international appeal might pressure decision-makers to end this scandal.

About Kav La’Oved

Kav La’Oved is an Israeli NGO, which defends the rights of disadvantaged workers. We help migrant workers, Palestinians, and other low earners, to face their daily rations of abuse, exploitation, and distress.

Kav La’Oved, founded 1990, is active both on the individual and public levels. On the individual level, we helped over 2000 workers win over $3,000,000 during the year 2001 alone. On the public level we are involved in legal activism against employers and state agencies, as well as in lobbying and advocacy campaigns. We have had important achievements in the areas of regulation and legislation, media coverage, and the raising of public awareness.

In the last decade, due to frequent closures and lack of access to Palestinian workers, Israel has opened its gates to a migrant workers community, which now stands at 250,000 people - some 10% of local workforce. The rights of these workers are obtusely and cruelly violated by the very employers and authorities, which work so hard to import them. While migrant work is a common phenomenon, the deliberate and institutionalised import of unemployment is probably an Israeli first.

Yedioth Acharonot, Weekend Supplement
December 7, 2001

You Have So Many Unemployed, What Do You Need Us For?

Oron Meiri, Meron Rappaport, and Ofer Petersburg

There are in Israel today 23,000 legal Chinese migrant workers. Only 10,000 of them have steady work. So who profits from bringing 13,000 unemployed Chinese to Israel? First of all, the so-called handlers, who receive thousands of dollars from each Chinese worker, even if he doesn’t put in a single day’s work. Secondly, the contractors, who conceal hundreds of millions of dollars in income at the expense of the Chinese workers fictitiously registered with them. Thirdly, the “grabbers,” who pick them up every morning at the intersections because they are ready to do any work for next to nothing. Every Chinese worker here has mortgaged his life in China in order to reach Israel and he has no way of getting back. Still they are thrown out of cars on the way from the airport. This is the way the Minister of Labor and Social Welfare, Shlomo Benizri, fights unemployment. (This is the first article in series on the subject.)

“I see the figures on unemployment.we examined the subject and learned that a large number of illegal migrant workers don’t work in construction or agriculture but in hotels and restaurants and cleaning private houses, thus taking the place of Israeli workers. Today, when we are at such a low point and so many workers have been fired from the hotels, why do I have to bring migrant workers to take their place? I don’t understand why in some restaurant a slant-eyed person has to bring me my food. An Israeli wouldn’t agree to do that?” (Shlomo Benizri, Minister of Labor and Social Welfare, in Yedioth Acharonot, May 2001)

He is right, Benizri, so right. He doesn’t have to say so in such a racist manner. After all, people with slanted eyes have not yet done anyone here any harm, but it is true that the last thing that Israel needs nowadays is migrant workers to compete with 250,000 unemployed Israelis. It is surprising, therefore, that the Ministry of Labor and Social Welfare, of which he is the head, allows the superfluous import of thousands of migrant workers or, if we can be more precise, thousands of unemployable migrants.

The new about-to-be-unemployed Chinese workers arrive here every week on Wednesday night on Flight 095 of El Al from Beijing. In the contracts they have been asked to sign in China, they are promised work in construction that “will contribute to the development of the country.” Some of them actually are integrated into construction work but thousands of them discover during the first few months of their employment on the building sites that nobody intends to pay them the wages promised them in China and they are soon out in the streets. Sometimes the rude awakening is even sooner. “A friend of mine arrived from China a month ago,” reports Neeu, one of the unemployed Chinese who lives right now in Pardess Katz [a poor suburb near Tel Aviv]. “He arrived at the airport, his passport was taken away from him, he was taken in a car and after two kilometers everyone who arrived with him was told to get out of the car because there was no work and everyone had to look for work for himself.”

At this point it should be emphasized that we are speaking about legal migrant workers, people who arrive with permits to work in the building industry. They are people who have personally been signed on in the presence of Israeli contractors and representative of Chinese and Israel manpower agencies after they received all the necessary permits from the Labor and Social Welfare and Interior ministries. It is only after arriving in this country that they discover that there is no work for them. At 6:30 in the morning one can see them in Bnei Barak (a town not far from Tel Aviv). They stand at the intersection of Jabontinsky and Aaronowitz streets (locally known as the “slave market”), trying to obtain work for the day (The “slave market” is a term that was carried over from the days before the first Intifada, when Arab workers from the occupied territories stood there for the same purpose.) Similar “markets” exist in Haifa, in Modi’in and in the south.

According to a rather cautious estimate, there are 13,000 unemployed Chinese workers stuck in Israel, from the total of 23,000, here legally. In other words, 60 percent of them were brought here needlessly.

For the Israelis, it’s a nuisance, for the Chinese themselves a catastrophe. In order to get here in the first place they had to pay the Chinese and Israel manpower agencies between $2800 to $10,000, a fortune in Chinese terms. No Chinese building worker has that kind of money. They are forced to go into debt, to take loans from all their friends and acquaintances, or to mortgage everything they own. In China they were told that they would be able to repay the loan within a year. In Israel the bubble blew up in their faces.

Now they are here. They have no money to buy a ticket home, their passports have been taken from them by the manpower agencies -- the ones who threw them into the street in the first place and are now demanding further payment if they want their passports back. At home, their creditors are waiting with bared teeth. “The thing I want most right now is to get my things together, get back my money from the Chinese manpower agency and get the hell out of here,” says Yun, a worker who has been stuck in Pardess Katz for a year. “But I know that if I don’t get the money, I will be stoned when I return to the village.”

So, why in hell are they here, these people who get on Benizri’s nerves? Who brought them here? Why were they given empty promises? In whose interest is it to flood the labor market with thousands more unemployed? How is it that people like that continue to arrive every week, even today? How is it that the Contractors’ Association and the Ministry of Housing are continually carping about the lack of construction workers when all the intersections in Pardess Katz are flooded with Chinese workers dying for a day’s work? Every single one of the more than 10,000 Chinese workers is registered with a contractor. How is it that the contractors complained that only 4000 Chinese workers ran away from their lawful employers? Why doesn’t the Ministry of Labor and Social Welfare put an end to this Pandemonium? Can it be that one of the greatest tax scams in the history of the state of Israel is going on right under our noses?

The importing of Chinese workers to Israel began about five years ago, when the real estate market was flourishing and it was hard to find enough workers. The Chinese construction workers, who earn between $100 to $200 a month in China, constituted a large reservoir of working hands. Since they specialized in “the finishing touches” -- putting in tile floors and painting -- they were brought here in addition to the other building workers from Turkey and Rumania.

The whole business gradually became established. Like mushrooms after the rain, manpower agencies sprang up in Israel and China whose sole purpose was in finding the suitable workers and bringing them to Israel. The applicants were promised $4-5 an hour and Israel was marketed to them as the gateway to a quick fortune. At the beginning, the Chinese agencies asked only $2500 for bringing them to Israel and arranging a visa. In time the price went up to $5000. Some of the money remained in the hands of the Chinese agents but most of it flowed into the hands of the Israeli manpower agencies, which made at least $3000 on every Chinese worker brought into the country.

As long as there was work the whole business was tough but on the up and up. Here and there, it is true, there were complaints about the Israeli employers who didn’t pay what they had promised, or about impossible working conditions or about the degrading attitude of the employers to their workers. But as long as these were localized complaints, nobody was ruffled. The workers continued to arrive and Israeli public opinion grew apathetic. This was due in no small part to the Benizris and their ilk who never stopped denouncing the illegal migrant workers in the country. The migrant workers are suffering? Too bad, let them suffer. They’ve come here to work not to have a good time.

But in time it became clear that they were not even coming here to work. The real estate market fell into a deep slumber, and building starts dropped from 60,000 to 30,000 in the last year because of the Intifada. The number of migrant workers, however, did not drop. It even grew. It was simple: the manpower agencies realized that it was more profitable to bring Chinese workers here -- after being paid thousands of dollars to do so -- than to employ them once they were here. Thus, at a time when construction in Israel has hit its lowest point, these traffickers in human beings run around to building contractors, urging them to request more and more working hands from the Labor Exchange . In return, these handlers promise the contractor thousands of dollars for every worker that reaches Israel without his having to employ him for even a single day. Is it any wonder, then, that the contractors go along with the ploy?

“Chinese workers -- that’s where the money is,” says Batya Carmon, head of the visa section in the Ministry of Interior. “They pay more for them than for any other worker. It’s a business in the billions. It pays to bring them here even if they’re not given jobs. They bring people who are not even skilled workers. Nobody needs them. The handlers come to contractors or farmers, asking them to sign a form for the Labor Exchange and pay them for doing that.”

“What makes it worthwhile to bring the Chinese workers here is the sum each one of them has to pay to for the right to work -- $5-8000,” says David Mena, the former director general of the Labor Exchange. After a month or two the worker finds himself in the streets, either because he is not skilled or because the contractors have nothing for him to do -- after they receive their share of the fee from the handler. The guy has mortgaged his house in China and is now completely bankrupt. They’re letting him go to the dogs. They tell the contractor: ‘We’ll get you workers as long as you put in a request for more than you need.’ That’s great for the contractor who is under pressure to find more working hands. Their condition is that the workers be Chinese. That’s where the big money is. A week ago I got a call like that. One of the handlers offered me $1200 for every worker I import through him. If the contractor is desperate he’ll be overjoyed at the offer. That way the handler brings in another fifty workers at his expense. Either they’ll have work when they arrive or they won’t. Sometimes it is worth to the contractor that they don’t work at all. It’s all a loop that begins from above, with the Labor Exchange, through the manpower companies and, sometimes, through the contractor. And the guy paying for it all is the Chinese worker. And we’re talking about an awful lot of money.”

“We also have a responsibility for the Israelis living in places where there are migrant workers.the crime rate is soaring, violence, drugs, prostitution. Those people behave differently, disgustingly, improperly. One of the stories going around is that they sit in the stairway shooting dope into each other. People are scared to death because of them. They don’t leave their homes after four in the afternoon.” (Shlomo Benizri, Minister of Labor and Social Welfare, in Yedioth Acharonot, May 2001)

In the case of Pardess Katz, it wasn’t the Chinese who brought crime into the neighborhood. The old-time residents find the Chinese good neighbors, pleasant, clean, quiet. They leave on rice and cabbage, pay the rent on time ($100 per capita with sometimes as many as 20 in one apartment -- think of how that affects the rents in the neighborhood). And they’re always, but always, smiling. Even when they’re really being put through the hoops. But behind the smiles, they are very angry. “I want my passport back,” says one of the men forthrightly, when he understands that we are preparing an article on the harrowing conditions of their lives. “Without my passport I am not a free person. It’s giving Israel a very bad name, when you act like that towards the Chinese. If we don’t get our passports back we are going to make a revolution, like the cultural revolution.”

At the Workers’ Hotline [an Israeli NGO that defends workers’ rights] they know these stories by heart. Once a week, on Monday afternoons, Chinese workers gather here. They practically all have the same complaint: there is no work, and if there is, they don’t always get paid. Chana Zohar, the head of the organization, tells us that in the last few month they received no less than one thousand similar complaints. It’s a pretty large figure, by any calculation, and has been growing by leaps and bounds ever since Benizri took office.

Dozens of Chinese have gathered around us. All of them paid thousands of dollars to come here, they all worked a month or two in construction -- sometimes three months. None of them received real wages, nothing more than starvation wages. “I worked on a building near the sea in Haifa, near the main road,” one of them tells me. He is wearing a yellow shirt and has the beginnings of a moustache. “I was given NIS 100 [$24] a month for food. I was really starving. We would go to the market and collect things from the ground, paying a shekel for them. In the end I left.” Here too, in Pardess Katz, it’s not exactly a gold mine. “There is no work. We’re taken to work only from time to time and then we’re not always paid,” he says. But it’s better than starving to death on a building site in Haifa.

Yun is ready to identify himself only by his family name. He has received us in his crowded apartment in Pardess Katz. Like most of the Chinese workers who stand at the intersection, he comes from a small village, Pujean, in a poor area in the south of China. “A couple of months ago I saw an ad in one of the papers promising work in Israel at $4 an hour. I thought that that was a wonderful offer. The Chinese company that published the ad, ‘Po Tung,’ asked us for $5000. That’s a lot of money in China but I appealed to my neighbors, to my family and friends and was finally able to get the money together.”

The minute he reached Israel, his passport was taken from him and he was sent to a building site in Jerusalem. There have already been Chinese workers there and they told him that the bosses didn’t pay. In Jerusalem, in the final analysis, he didn’t work at all because there was no work. From there he was sent to Rishon LeZion and then to Beersheba. It was the same story all over again: no work, no money. He finally ended up in Pardess Katz. A friend of his told him of the Chinese colony in the town. “My friend arranged for me to stay at an apartment with another twenty workers. We don’t have anything to eat. We manage to get a little rice and cabbage and that’s what we eat. We can’t afford any more.”

Phon walks around with a worker’s permit from a manpower company. He also worked two months on a construction site, but he doesn’t even know where it was. He was, naturally, never paid. He asked the company to at least return his passport to him but he was told that he would have to pay for the privilege. He didn’t dare appeal to the Chinese Embassy. But even if he had, it wouldn’t have helped very much. One of the more veteran workers explains that he tried to go to the Chinese Embassy in Tel Aviv but he wasn’t allowed in. Another worker says that he, in fact, did get inside but the clerks there told him that if he wasn’t getting paid it was his problem. If they succeed in getting the Company that hired them on the phone, they get the same answer. “If they owe you money, that’s your problem.”

“They’re all Ali Baba. They all lie and tell you fairy tales,” says the worker who refuses to identify himself. “The Chinese and the Israelis are in this together.”

“I haven’t told my family anything. I prefer that they not know what it’s like for us here,” says Yun. “I have warned all my friends not to even think of coming here. But the company goes from town to town organizing workers and there are enough of them who never heard how they treat workers in Israel.” Some of the stories appeared in a local paper in Pujean, but it apparently had little influence.

The Contract

(This is the contract that the Chinese workers coming to Israel sign. It is how modern slavery formulates itself.)

Work agreement between the International Company for Technological and Economic Cooperation of the Building Association Yentai and the worker:

The purpose of this contract is to contribute to the development of the state of Israel.

I. The contract is for a period of 24 months with the possibility of extending it for another month or up to another six months. The worker must agree to the extension unconditionally.

II. Payment to the worker in Israel will be according to the conditions agreed upon in China.

III. Duties of the Company:

1.The Company will deal with all arrangements for departure [from China], including a work permit abroad.

2. The cost of these arrangements will be covered by the worker...

3. If the worker is unable to execute the work abroad, the company can return him to China, at his expense, including the price of the return air ticket.

4. The Company dealing with the departure of the worker from China, together with the Company in Israel, is responsible for the following:

  1. Arrangements for entering Israel
  2. Provision of services while he is working abroad: housing, transportation, etc.
  3. Medical insurance during his sojourn abroad and social security.
    Comment: The local Company (in Israel) will deduct from the worker’s wages $400 a month for the above-mentioned services...
  4. The Company abroad (in Israel) will deduct 25 percent of the wages of the worker as a handling fee.

IV. Duties of the Worker

1. The worker must make sure that his physical and professional condition is satisfactory. If the Company abroad decides to send him back to China for health or technical reasons, it will be at his expense, including the cost of health insurance.

2. For a set period of time from the date of departure >from China, the worker must pay the sum of 30,000 Yuan (about $3,200). The sum will be divided as follows: a. 18,000 Yuan (about $2,200) to the Israeli Company. b. 5760 Yuan to the Chinese Company dealing with his departure from China (for training and air tickets). c. 5760 Yuan to the Construction Association of Yentai (for the health certificate, innoculations, etc.).

3. The worker must deposit a guarantee with the Construction Association of Yentai in the sum of 25,000 Yuan (about $2800) in accordance with his economic situation. The Association will lend the worker the sum necessary for the guarantee.

4. The guarantee will be returned to the worker if everything is in order.

5. If the return of the worker is not in order he will not receive the expenses he paid out nor will he receive back his guarantee; members of his family will be responsible for paying the guarantee.

Return that is not in order will be considered as following:

  1. If the worker broke any Israeli law.
  2. If the worker was involved in a strike or had problems at work or did any kind of work for another company or private person in Israel without the Company’s agreement.
  3. If the worker was sent back to China because he broke the laws of the Yentai Company while in Israel.
  4. If the worker was forced to return from Israel because of health problems that he had concealed from the Company.
  5. If the worker wants to return to China for personal reasons before the end of the period stipulated in the contract.

6. It is the duty of the worker to obey all instructions and to protect the good name of the Company and the good name of China.

7. If there are any damages caused by the worker’s behavior in Israel --refusal to do a certain job or opposition to certain kinds of work or if his work is unsatisfactory -- the worker must pay for the damages and the money will be deducted from the guarantee.

8. While abroad, the worker is prohibited from taking part in any kind of political or religious activity, or participating in any demonstration, march or strike. If there are any problems of this nature, the project team (representatives of the Chinese Company in Israel) can fire him. If the problems are not solved, the worker may appeal to the team or Company in writing, by telephone or fax, but he is absolutely prohibited from appealing to the Chinese Embassy, their economic attaches, or to a foreign government or non-governmental organization. If the worker violates this statute, the Company is authorized to decide on the seriousness of the transgression and determine the size of the fine that will be deducted from his guarantee. Or he may be sent home.

9. The worker is forbidden, while abroad, to sign or orally agree to any document. He is prohibited from expressing his opinion on any matter whatsoever. The consequences of such behavior will be his fault.

10. While he is abroad, the worker does not have the right to cancel the contract or willingly remain abroad or willingly leave the country. If he does any of the above he forfeits all of his guarantee.

11. The worker must behave as a good Chinese citizen, decently representing his country, and refusing to divulge any state secrets. If he violates any of these orders, the Company will decide on the seriousness of the transgression and determine the size of the fine to be deducted from the guarantee.

12. If the worker does not return home after the period stipulated in the contract, the Company has the right to confiscate all the money of his guarantee and his wages abroad.

13. If the worker cannot fulfil his part of the contract and returns to China on his own initiative, all the consequences will be as in para. 12.

Signed -- the worker members of his family