It took Sherima Cramer two years to earn enough money to pay back the debts she incurred when she decided to leave her native Sri Lanka for better job opportunities in Israel.
In 2007 she gave the bank all her jewelry as a deposit for a loan and paid a Sri Lankan agency US$7,000 to organize her legal immigration and first employment in Israel as a carer for an elderly couple in Tel Aviv. Other migrants mortgage their homes or other property to raise the money.
As a single mother, Cramer felt she had no other choice: “I do it because I want to pay for my children’s education.”
Cramer said she works 24 hours a day but is paid for eight, at the minimum wage of 22 New Israeli Shekels ($5.70) per hour or $1,066 a month. “People here think we do everything for money. But what we really need is more freedom,” she told IRIN.
She is one of about 55,000 migrant caregivers currently working in Israel, pushed into dependency, rights activists say, by controversial new legislation and by pressure to send money back home while repaying debts to recruitment agencies.
“If your employer beats you during the first year or two, you won’t complain because you need to do everything to keep the first job so you can pay back the money to the agencies,” warned Idit Lebovich, coordinator of the caregivers project at the Israeli labour rights organization Kav LaOved. “If we talk about all the problems, the agencies are the worst.”
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Cramer’s situation is likely to get even more difficult, as a new law on foreign caregivers’ labour rights - passed in May 2011 and dubbed by some NGOs the “slavery law” - starts to be put into practice.
Bound to work by law
The law enables the minister of interior to restrict the number of times a foreign carer can change employers; to limit workers to specific geographical areas; and to confine them to specific subsections of the nursing services, thereby restricting the carers’ freedom to choose or change the workplace.
So far it has not been applied, but this will change “in the next weeks”, said Sabin Hadad, spokeswoman of the Population and Migration Authority in the Israeli Ministry of the Interior.
The detailed regulations are currently being finalized, she said, adding that migrant caregivers will most likely be restricted to changing employers only three times, and would otherwise be deported from Israel.
Lebovich of Kav LaOved said this might force caregivers to accept any possible treatment, out of fear that they might lose their status.
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“The caregivers are used as objects,” she said. “If they don’t do what you want from them as an employer, you can kick them out. They will be deported, and you can simply bring in new and less demanding workers.”
But Hadad said the law is needed to secure adequate care for elderly people in Israel.
“If someone from the Philippines comes to work in Israel, but her employer is very difficult to take care of, she just leaves and finds an easier one. The law makes sure this doesn’t happen,” she said, adding: “We have workers who don’t want to work in the periphery. The law will restrict their employment to a specific area when they arrive.”
NGOs described the bill as a major setback that effectively restores an older practice called the “binding agreement”, which the Israeli Supreme Court criticized in 2006 by stating that “the excessive power wielded by the employer provides fertile ground for grave phenomena such as taking passports away from workers, imprisonment, non-payment of wages, violence, exploitation and treating workers inhumanely.”
Vulnerable to exploitation
Israel initially brought in migrants to care for handicapped army veterans. As the remaining population demanded more affordable live-in care, more migrants were encouraged to come. The number of permits issued for foreign carers grew sevenfold between 1996 and 2009, from about 8,100 to about 57,000.
Most care-givers in Israel are women from the Philippines, Nepal, Sri Lanka, and other Asian and eastern European countries.
Under the current legal regime, the Israeli Interior Ministry does not issue visas for a new employment if caregivers already spent more than four years and three months in Israel. Those working beyond that period are especially vulnerable to exploitation by their employers, as losing the job means losing the permit to stay.
Although Cramer has now been in Israel more than five years, she hopes to stay on for a few more with her current employer, who she describes as “OK”. But some of her friends were less lucky.
“One lady in my church community said her employer cut her salary to 2,000 Shekels ($520) per month after she finished her five years. She is working around the clock and is hardly ever allowed to leave the house,” Cramer said.
Meanwhile, Israel has begun a drive to round up foreign migrants in the first stage of a controversial plan to intern and deport thousands deemed a threat to the Jewish character of the state.