Israel’s slavery conditions criticized

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Once we were slaves, now we’re slavers

By Ruth Sinai

In June 2002, M.R., an incapacitated Israeli man from Migdal Haemek, traveled to the city of Kolomyya, in Ukraine. There he met a widow of 45 and offered her a job working for him in Israel. She accepted, he sent her a plane ticket and she arrived in the country. Her work was to look after him and his mother ? he uses a wheelchair, she is elderly ? including bathing them and changing diapers. She also had to clean the house, do the laundry and cook.

“When I started the job, M.R. told me that I had to work a year without pay to repay the many expenses he had in bringing me to Israel,” the women said in a statement that she made on April 2 to attorney Anat Gonen from Kav La’oved, the Workers Hotline for the Protection of Worker’s Rights. Thus, during her first year of employment, she received no salary, apart from NIS 100-200 that the handicapped man’s mother gave her occasionally. “In addition, I was allowed to go out twice a week for a few hours in order to work at cleaning, and the money I earned [from that work] I sent to my family in Ukraine.”

At the end of the year, the woman asked M.R. to start paying her. However, he told her he was in the midst of a lawsuit against his insurance company and that after he won, he would receive a great deal of money and would pay her retroactively. “Because he made it clear to me that if I stopped working for him I would have to go back to Ukraine, I agreed, having no choice but to go on working without getting a salary,” she explained in her statement.

The abuse was not confined to withholding of payment. According to her statement, M.R. was verbally abusive toward her and humiliated her. In one case he bit her wrist. When she threatened to go to the police, he himself called the police ? to complain about her. The policeman who came to the house heard them both out, asked them to work things out, and left. Afterward it turned out that previous complaints against the employer existed, including the use of violence against policemen.

The woman did not know where to turn. She had not arrived in Israel through a manpower company and did not know anyone. When the situation became utterly intolerable, she turned to a neighbor, who got her the phone number of Yaakov Lev, a Russian-speaking volunteer from Kav La’oved.

Lev took her to the Immigration Police, to file a complaint of exploitation, false incarceration, nonpayment of wages and other offenses, and he found her a job in Haifa. Last week Lev sent a letter to M.R., demanding that he pay the caregiver NIS 150,000 for her three years of work. “He kept threatening her that the moment she stopped working, she would be deported. It was only fear that made her stay there,” Lev says.

International sanctions

People like M.R. ? and there are many of them, it turns out ? are giving Israel a bad name as a country in which trafficking in human beings for purposes of servitude exists. This stigma, if it receives official validation, is liable to make Israel a member of a very unpleasant club, and also result in international sanctions. The Justice Ministry’s struggle against the phenomenon is being led by Rachel Gershuni, head of the ministry’s penal section. Half a year ago she described in the Knesset the conditions that usually characterize servitude: “Work during most of the day, severance from external centers of support, refusal to return a passport, fraudulent behavior, use of force or other means of pressure, false incarceration, lack of medical care, substandard living conditions, being forced to work during illness and low payment for work.

“A tool that is often used by people who traffic in human beings is debt bondage. This is a pattern of behavior in which the slave is made to compensate his employer for the expenses he incurred in bringing him [to Israel] and paying for his upkeep. To this end, he must forgo his salary or receive a pittance, with the length of the compensatory period and the value of the services rendered arbitrarily determined by the employer. The victims of this trade in people are particularly vulnerable because of their unfamiliarity with the target country. Even if they arrive legally, they do not know the local language and culture, and this deters them from realizing their rights.”

The U.S. State Department estimates that trafficking in human beings involves between 600,000 and 800,000 people annually throughout the world for purposes of work, prostitution and harvesting of body organs. In contrast to slavery in the past, when employers bought people for a great deal of money and treated them well so that they could recoup the investment, the glut of poor people available in the Third World has made the modern slave a cheap investment that can easily be replaced.
“There is no need to buy him,” Gershuni told the Knesset Committee for Foreign Workers. “It is enough to control him as long as benefit is derived from him.”

According to a study by the American Civil Liberties Union in Berkeley, California, trafficking for purposes of slavery in households is in second place in terms of the number of people involved, after trafficking for prostitution. After identifying the problem several years ago, the United States enacted legislation to combat it. Until 2004, indictments were handed down against 77 people for coercive employment or commerce in human beings. Convictions were obtained in most of the cases. In 2002, for example, a California court sentenced the common-law wife of the Thai ambassador to Sweden to eight years in prison for having brought with her to the United States a household worker, whose passport she confiscated, then forcing her to work 20 hours a day, six days a week.

However, as befits the world’s sheriff, the United States has taken the matter beyond the domestic sphere. In an attempt to eradicate the phenomenon throughout the world, the State Department publishes an annual report that ranks the efforts made by the world’s countries to combat human trafficking. Since 2003 the report has referred not only to trafficking for prostitution, but also for bondage. To meet the minimal standards set by the United States for this report, a country must investigate, bring to justice and convict such traffickers and also take preventive measures against the phenomenon, including public education.

Not doing enough

Israel, the United States maintains, is not doing enough to combat the phenomenon. After being at the lowest level for one year ? i.e., being listed as one of the countries that is not doing anything at all to eradicate human trafficking ? Israel has, since 2002, been upgraded to the Tier 2 level of countries that are taking action against it, but not enough. Last year, the report added a “watch list,” referring to countries that are about to be downgraded. In September 2005, Gershuni met with representatives of the State Department ahead of the publication of the annual “Trafficking in Persons Report” ?(available at

Gershuni: “It was explained to me that a battle had been waged over whether Israel should not be downgraded, because of what was perceived as lack of seriousness in dealing with the foreign workers. I was also told that a Tier 2 country that is placed on the ?special watch list’ is liable to find itself at the lowest level, which brings in its wake economic sanctions within a short time.”
The 2005 report stated, in condemnation of Israel, that some of the foreign workers in the country suffer from nonpayment of wages, threats, coercion, physical and sexual abuse, debt bondage and restrictions on freedom of movement, including confiscation of passports. The report also noted that Israel does not have legislation against trafficking in persons for purposes of servitude. At the same time, it was noted in Israel’s favor that there is a bill pending in the Knesset, which for the first time stipulates that trafficking in persons for purposes of servitude will be an offense, punishable by 16 years’ imprisonment.

In fact, two bills were submitted to the Knesset last year, one by MK Zahava Gal-On ?(Meretz-Yahad?), who chaired the Parliamentary Inquiry Committee on the Trading of Women, and one submitted by the government. The bills were passed on first reading andhe Justice Ministry will be asked to declare them continuing legislation so that the enactment of the law can be completed by the just-elected 17th Knesset.

The Justice Ministry says that other legislation exists under which traffickers in human beings for labor exploitation can be tried, but that it is important for a specific offense to be stipulated, just as trafficking for purposes of prostitution is a specific crime. However, the state moves slowly. It took a decade after women began to be smuggled into Israel to work as prostitutes until the state started to tackle the problem seriously ? the original bill, for example, was submitted by former Labor Party MK Yael Dayan, not by the government ? and this occurred in large part after the United States began to publish its annual report and Israel was listed as a Tier 3 country, which faced possible sanctions.

In the wake of the criticism leveled at Israel in last year’s report, an inter-ministerial committee was formed to discuss the measures Israel has to take against trafficking for servitude and bondage. So far the committee has held three meetings. “Overall, the position of the state is that trafficking in persons for purposes of labor has not yet reached the dimensions of a phenomenon,” Gershuni told the Knesset committee. However, she added, there have been recent cases in which it was alleged that people were brought here to work in domestic households “and were kept in conditions that amount to trafficking. It is true, apparently, that these cases are still the exception and not the rule, but they constitute a red light and oblige us to do our best so that the phenomenon does not grow and develop.”

Morning ?til night

What, then, are the cases that threaten to place Israel on the blacklist? M.G., a Filipina, arrived in Israel in April 2004 through a manpower company after paying $3,900. At first she was sent to work as a caregiver for an elderly man in Hod Hasharon, but left after a few weeks of working from morning to night, cleaning the house of the man’s son ahead of Pesach ? a six-room villa with four bathrooms.

She asked the manpower company to find her a different employer, but quickly discovered that this was a mistake. The new employer, a woman, B.S., from Rehovot, did not want to spend money on food, and gave the caregiver only leftovers that she brought home from a club for the elderly.

“I went to sleep hungry,” the caregiver told a volunteer from Moked ? the Hotline for Migrant Workers ?(HMW?). “A Filipina friend sometimes brought me food, until the lady got angry. When I wanted to do laundry, she allowed me to use only a quarter of a bucket of water, and my friends had to do my laundry for me. I had to shut off the light in my room at 8 P.M., even though the lights were still on in the rest of the house. One day I didn’t feel well and wanted to go to the hospital. The lady would not agree to take me even to a doctor and told me that if I did not feel well I just had to sleep.”

In the wake of this incident, M.G. informed her employer’s son that she was leaving. Because she had no other employer, she was arrested ? but no action was taken against the abusive employer. M.G. was released with the assistance of the company that brought her over. She now has a good job with a woman in an old-age home.
Y., from Moldova, paid $4,000 to come to Israel and take care of an elderly man. When she got to the house, in Kfar Sava, she discovered that, contrary to what she had been told in Moldova, she would have to look after a couple, each of whom was 90 years old. Her passport was taken from her on the day she arrived. She received NIS 300 a week for working 24 hours a day, six days a week.

“I was not allowed to leave the house. The door was locked. I was hardly given any food. I would eat when they were not looking. I was not allowed to call anyone. The man told me that if I bought a phone card I would be able to call from a public phone, accompanied by him. But they would not let me go out to buy a card,” she related. After about six weeks she fled and was subsequently arrested and deported, without receiving a salary. She will probably not even be able to cover the loan she took to come to Israel.

Currently being heard in a local labor court is the suit of a 35-year-old Filipina who has been in Israel for almost five years. Fifty months after she started to work in the country, her original employer was hospitalized. Under Interior Ministry regulations a foreign worker is allowed to work in Israel up to 54 months, and the woman knew she would have difficulty finding a legal employer for her remaining time in the country. Finally she found someone who was willing to hire her under one condition ? that she have sexual relations with him. According to the suit and the complaint filed with the police, the relatives of the elderly man in question also stated that this was the exclusive condition for her legal employment.

Seeing no other choice, she agreed. But according to attorney Rachel Idelevich, from Kav La’oved, who is representing her, after a short time she was no longer able to bear the humiliation and asked her employer to let her be. He refused, and her requests to members of the family were similarly rebuffed. The worker suffered a mental breakdown, left the elderly employer and turned to Kav La’oved. The association is now trying to get the permit issued to the man to employ a foreign worker rescinded, so that future caregivers will not suffer the same ordeal.

Bringing Madam her tea

In most cases the victims of modern-day slavery are workers, and especially female workers, who came to Israel the usual way, through manpower companies, but found themselves in the hands of an employer from hell. However, there are also underground routes, which are nearly impossible to control.

Justina Fernandez was brought to Israel from Mumbai ?(Bombay?) in October 2000 by Sanjay and Patricia Shaha, an Indian diamond merchant and his wife, who have lived in the country for the past 15 years. According to the complaint submitted by Fernandez tthe labor court last year, she was paid a total of only $6,900 for four years and nine months of work ? which averages out to about $200 a month, even though she worked in the family’s home in upscale Ramat Aviv seven days a week, morning to night. “I have to bring Madam her tea in bed at 6:30 A.M.,” Fernandez told Haaretz. “When there are guests for dinner I work until 2 or 3 in the morning cleaning up.”

According to the charge sheet, Fernandez was rarely allowed to leave the house, apart from an occasional visit to a mall and once a year to attend the Christmas service at church. In her last year of work she was occasionally allowed to visit Christian holy places. In the interview with her, which was held at a shelter for women in emergency situations, to which she fled last year, Fernandez related that her employer used to frighten her by saying that it was dangerous to go out because buses blow up and because she was liable to meet people who would have a bad influence on her and tempt her to commit forbidden acts. “Madam told me that the Israeli girls I would meet would be my ruin,” Fernandez said.

Despite the harsh conditions and the minuscule salary, which she received once a year, when she traveled to India to visit her family and her daughter, Fernandez did not try to leave her employers. She had nowhere to go and did not know that the laws in Israel apply to her as well, in contrast to the situation in India for foreigners. The last straw was her employers’ refusal to allow her to go to India to attend her nine-year-old daughter’s communion, a ceremony which bore deep meaning for Fernandez.

“My daughter cried on the phone all the time for me to come. My heart burned. I felt like I was in prison,” she said. “My daughter cried on the phone because she wanted me to come. I did not understand how Madam did not understand ? she is also a mother.”

The only person Fernandez had met locally was a priest from Ghana in a church that she occasionally visited in Jaffa. He put her in touch with the HMW. For three weeks Fernandez tried to coordinate a meeting with the organization’s director, Sigal Rosen, when her employers would be out of the house and she would be able to escape and return to India. They set up a few dates, but Fernandez always had to cancel. So as not to arouse her employers’ suspicions, she used the mobile phone of one of the building’s workers. On July 12, 2005, the couple went out to a restaurant. Fernandez packed her belongings in three garbage bags and went downstairs in the elevator as though going to throw out the garbage, in case anyone saw her, and then got into Rosen’s car, which was waiting outside.

Fernandez filed a suit for NIS 250,000 against the Shaha family and a complaint with the Immigration Police for exploitation, false incarceration, nonpayment of wages and other charges. In their interrogation the couple claimed that Fernandez was free to go out at any time, and that they had paid her and given her vacation days according to Israeli law. In their statement they added that Fernandez’s only goal was to extort money from them, and therefore “she fled from her place of work a few months before its termination, in a flagrant breach of discipline.”

Fernandez stated in her interrogation that her employers kept her passport and gave it to her only when they took her to catch the plane for India on the three occasions that she flew there. In India the passport was taken by a relative of the Shaha family and returned to her when she was about to return to Israel. Asked about this by the interrogators, Sanjay Shaha said: “She gave us the passport to ensure that she was coming back.” He said that she knew where the passport was kept and was free to take it. To which Fernandez retorts that if she had known, she would have taken it when she fled the apartment.
Contradictions crop up

Certain contradictions cropped up in Shaha’s testimony. For example, he told the police that the passport was kept in a drawer with all the household documents, but the statement of defense said it was kept in a safe. In any event, the police were not persuaded by this and the interrogator wrote: “Concerning the suspicion of confiscation of passports, the respondents [the Shahas] are implicating themselves.” Israeli courts have already noted that passport confiscation is associated with trafficking in persons, because it deprives people of their freedom. Despite this, and even though the couple implicated themselves in an offense for which the penalty is a year in prison, the police recommended that the case be closed “because it is of no public interest.”

The police were not impressed by Fernandez’s claim that she was forced to work against her will ? a state of affairs which, under the law, is considered coerced labor and also carries a punishment of a year’s imprisonment. In the interrogation Fernandez was asked, “Were you forced to stay in the country in the event that you wanted to leave?” She replied: “They said that I must remain until the visa runs out. Even if I complain to the police and go to the embassy, I must stay to work for them.”

The employer claimed he had paid her legally, but contradicted himself in part when he said that her salary “was not a pittance by any means, especially not in terms of domestic service work as it is customary in India.” He also admitted that he had not drawn up a written contract with Fernandez, contrary to the Foreign Workers Law. At the same time, he told the police interrogator that he would be happy to accede to her request to pay Fernandez her salary for her last four months of work. He promised her that he would pay Fernandez “with the addition of a big tip,” as the interrogator wrote in her summation. It goes without saying that the money was not paid.

‘The situation is complex’
Commander Ziva Agami-Cohen, who heads the crime-fighting unit in the Immigration Police, was behind the decision to close the case. “Fernandez claimed that she was not allowed to go out, but her account was contradicted. They claim something else entirely. A reasonable prospect for conviction is required, and it did not exist in this case. For five years she kept her testimony to herself ? why? She went back and forth to India. The situation is complex. Even if there were a law against trafficking in human beings for purposes of household labor, a situation like this would demand an explanation. She did not do anything active against the exploitation, the incarceration. With all my empathy for her, they also made a credible impression in the interrogation, and there is not enough evidence. The State Prosecutor’s Office also agreed that the story, as it is, is insufficient.”
Indeed, the State Prosecutor’s Office accepted the police recommendation and ordered the case closed, and also rejected an appeal against the decision by the HMW. The spokesman for the Justice Ministry stated that the case was reexamined in the wake of the appeal, and “after a thorough examination of the totality of the investigative material and the allegations that were put forward in the past, the state prosecution reached the conclusion that in the light of evidentiary difficulties in the case, there is no place for changing the police decision to close the case.”

The HMW insists that the case is of public interest and that there is enough evidence to place the family on trial. According to the organization, the police did nothing to verify the accounts of each side and to obtain evidence. The file contains only the transcript of the interrogations and two receipts, of NIS 2,700 each, which Shaha says he paid Fernandez in India, even though the name of the recipient of the money does not appear on them.
“They did not speak to the workers in the building, or to me, or to the priest,” Rosen says. Asked why Fernandez waited so long before making her complaint, Rosen says that Fernandez did not think there was anything to complain about. “She thought that this is how things were supposed to be. It was only when she was denied permission to see her daughter that she decided to leave. And it was only after she heard from us about the minimum wage and other rights that she decided to complain.”

At the beginning of this month a landmark petition was filed with the High Court of Justice against the state’s decision to close the case, “which raises a serious suspicion of trafficking in human beings and offenses of exploitation, coerced labor, confiscation of passport, threats … The petitioner was exploited and humiliated, incarcerated and threatened, and she spent her best years in a foreign country, in a closed house, far from her family and her little daughter. Is there any formula for quantifying the damage that was done her?”

This petition was filed by the HMW and by the Center for Clinical Education in the College of Management by attorney Nomi Levenkron, one of the driving forces behind Israel’s struggle against trafficking in women for purposes of prostitution. “The suspicion is growing that even the authorities themselves, and not only the employers, are not clear about the nature of modern slavery,” Levenkron writes in the introduction to the petition.

She notes, for example, that no local employer has ever been brought to trial for subjecting a worker to coerced labor ? even though the law-enforcement agencies are aware of many cases of this kind. Further evidence of the fact that the system misunderstands the nature of bondage, she notes, is the opinion that because Fernandez was able to fly to India for a vacation, she was a free person. Her employers held both her money and her passport in order to ensure her obedience and she was not a free individual, Levenkron writes. Moreover, past judgments have already recognized the fact that women who were brought to Israel to work in prostitution are victims of human trafficking, even though they were free to wander the streets and even returned to their countries and afterward came back to Israel.

Cooks for diamond merchants

Closing the cases against employers of foreign workers is a typical reaction, says Rom Levkowitz, HMW’s spokesman. “The same mantra of ?no public interest’ keeps repeating itself. The moment it is not Israeli citizens who are involved, the approach is that the case has no implications for the Israeli society. That is the message that is being conveyed. They prefer simply to deport the complainants,” he says.

The state not only makes things easy for people suspected of violating the law concerning foreign workers, it also makes it easy for them to bring workers into the country under circumstances that invite lawlessness. Last year, for example, the government decided that every Indian diamond merchant can employ a cook from India to supply his and his family’s distinctive culinary needs. These cooks are not included in the quota of foreign workers that the government allocates in the realms of industry, agriculture, construction and social services.

“That decision was made after it was found that the Indian diamond merchants in Israel are contributing significantly to employment and to the state’s foreign trade, and that permitting them to employ a cook is important to prevent an adverse impact on this population’s way of life during their stay in Israel,” attorney Shoshana Strauss, from the Industry, Trade and Employment Ministry, wrote in reply to a query by the HMW.

The organization’s query was made in the wake of the Fernandez affair and the question arose as to how the Shaha family was able to employ her legally. From Strauss’ letter it is apparent that in January 2005, and again in July 2005, the government adopted decisions with the goal of determining who is allowed to employ foreign workers who are not part of the existing quotas. The decisions, Strauss says, were intended to formalize various arrangements, which had existed previously in the form of procedures ? some of which had been unclear and informal.

One such decision states that a permit is to be given to “diamond merchants, including one worker for each diamond merchant, and one cook from the diamond merchant’s country of origin, in order to prepare food for the diamond merchant and his family in accordance with the precepts of their religion.” The language of the resolution is not aimed specifically at Indians, but Strauss says that this is the intention. The ministry decided to issue 110 permits for Indian diamond merchants.

The merchants submit their request for employment permits through the supervisor of diamond merchants in the Industry and Trade Ministry, and are required to sign a commitment to uphold Israel’s labor laws. In her letter to the HMW, Strauss promised to investigate the Fernandez case, but added that it cannot be inferred from it that all Indian diamond merchants keep their workers in conditions of servitude. The organization rejects this viewpoint and notes that in India, the wealthy tend to keep service workers in harsh conditions.

Fernandez has been in a shelter for women in emergency situations in the north of the country for eight months. She is forbidden to work and is in danger of being deported. In a letter to Prime Minister Ariel Sharon, six months ago, she asked to be recognized as a victim of trafficking ? a status which makes it possible to work for a year in order to save up money and be rehabilitated. To date no reply has been received from the Prime Minister’s Office. Last week Shaha offered her a compromise in court: to accept NIS 70,000 instead of the NIS 250,000 she is asking for. Fernandez rejected the proposal.