The special Knesset committee, bearing the problematic name "For the Examination of the Foreign Workers' Problem", was established in 1998, the year when the Hotline for Refugees and Migrants was founded. I took part in the committee's hearings during its first year. Although many years have passed since that first hearing, I still remember the shock I felt when I realized two things: How many laws and regulations aren't actually implemented and just how little many members of Knesset knew about those who are affected by the laws the pass. Even more disturbing was the ignorance of executive branch officials about the blatant violations of those laws and regulations by their subordinates.
Throughout the years, the committee served as a platform for dealing with important issues and communities who were rarely discussed by other Knesset committees: migrant workers and their children, unaccompanied minors, human trafficking victims and stateless residents.
Around the committee's table, members of Knesset, government officials, representatives of human rights NGOs and representatives of migrant communities would gather. For years, the committee serves as a bridge for dialog, for creating trust, for opening communication channels and conveying information. Even when we were unable to develop or open communication channels, the committee's hearings served as an important source of information, when government officials were obligated by the committee chairperson to provide data and details of regulations that could not be obtained otherwise.
The committee can be credited for many improvements in the lives of migrants and refugees in Israel, including: placing inspectors in prisons for years to help migrants retrieve their last paychecks before deportation, stopping the detention of single parents during the years when the Ministry of Interior didn't dare to detain and deport children, limiting the violence employed by immigration inspectors during arrest, expediting the regularization of the status of migrant workers' children, releasing unaccompanied minors from detention, promoting bilateral agreements with sending countries that ensure the labor rights of migrants, and furthering the accessibility of welfare and health services to migrants. The committee's hearings brought to the fore the challenges and problems migrants encounter, and the responsibility of the State of Israel toward them. The hearings also forced government official to acknowledge the problems and accelerated attempts to remedy them.
In the 17th Knesset, the committee was chaired by MK Ran Cohen (Meretz), and together with his parliamentary assistant at the time, Tamar Zandberg (currently a Meretz MK), worked tirelessly to advance the rights of migrants and asylum-seekers, although the asylum-seekers' community was not officially under the purview of the committee. Asylum-seekers entered Israel in growing numbers at the time. In early 2009, with the start of the 18th Knesset, we tried to expand the committee's purview to include asylum-seekers and to change its disturbing name to "The Special Committee on Immigration and Asylum".
I was worried that without an official alteration of the committee's purview, the new chairman of the committee, Yaakov Katz (Ketzale) will insist on conducting all the committee's hearings about migrant workers alone, while ignoring the plight of asylum-seekers. As Ketzale assumed his position, I was disappointed to discover that my worries did not materialize, instead, I hoped that Ketzale would stop dedicating all of the committee's hearings to asylum-seekers, whom he labeled "work infiltrators", and constantly blamed for all the ills of Israeli society.
During the 19th Knesset (the previous one), MK Michal Rozin (Meretz) headed the committee and relentlessly fought to advance the rights of migrants and asylum-seekers. Rozin managed to elicit a promise from the Immigration Authority not to impose fines, albeit temporarily, on employers of asylum-seekers who were unable to renew their visas due to the Authority's cutback in the number of offices serving asylum-seekers. Asylum-seekers must carry a valid visa to be able to work. This promise allowed asylum-seekers to return to work and saved thousands from being fired and even from hunger. In addition, Rozin raised important issues in the committee's hearings, such as the employment of foreign "students" (i.e. exploited workers) in the agricultural sector, work-place safety for migrants, pensions of caregivers, illegal recruitment fees, bilateral agreements with sending countries, and enforcement of labor laws. Despite the lively hearings and the efforts of the committee's chairwoman, many of the issues raised during the 19th Knesset are still unresolved and await a response from government officials.
With the start of the 20th session of the Knesset, complex political agreements led to the untimely death of the Committee for the Examination of the Foreign Workers' Problem, without a decision regarding which body will complete solving the problems raised in the previous Knesset. The Committee for the Examination of the Foreign Workers' Problem will be replaced by the special Committee "for Implementation of Government Transparency and Accessibility." One can't help but see the irony in the decision to sacrifice the committee for migrant workers', the most transparent and ignored community in Israel, on the altar of the transparency committee.
By: Sigal Rozen, Public Policy Coordinator at the Hotline for Refugees and Migrants