An agreement between Israel and China aimed at regulating the employment of thousands of foreign construction workers in Israel has snagged on a demand from Beijing that its citizens not be sent to work in West Bank settlements, the Haaretz daily newspaper reported on Sunday.
China has said the West Bank ban is due to a concern for the Chinese workers’ safety in areas beyond the Green Line, which marks Israel’s pre-1967 borders.
The government is eager to see the deal with China completed in the hope that an influx of foreign workers will increase the rate of housing construction in Israel and reduce the costs of new homes.
Last year Israel decide to increase the number of foreign construction workers in the country by some 8,000 initially, ramping up to an additional 15,000. There are currently around 45,000 foreign construction workers in Israel.
Israel has for several years been working on regulating the arrival of foreign workers, which in the past was handled by manpower agencies and subject to concerns of improper and illegal conditions forced on the workers.
According to the report, the nonprofit foreign workers’ rights organization Kav LaOved received testimonies in the past from some Chinese workers who said they were required to pay a commission of $30,000 to the manpower agencies that arranged their employment in Israel. Extracting a commission from workers is illegal under Israeli law, according to which agencies can only be compensated for travel costs.
For construction workers who earn an average of NIS 6,000 ($1,550) a month, the heavy commission puts them at the mercy of the manpower agencies for years until the debt is paid off — raising concerns that the arrangements amounted to human trafficking.
As a result, in 2011 the Israeli government decided to regulate the influx of foreign workers by forming agreements with supplier countries. Israel currently has worker agreements with Thailand, Sri Lanka, Bulgaria, Moldova, and Romania, although the latter stipulated that its citizens not work on settlement projects over the Green Line.
Even under the terms of the emerging agreement the Chinese government would, as is its custom, charge a commission for each worker it sends — a month’s wage from each year of employment. Over the standard five-year term, that amounts to about $7,750, which Israel has stipulated be paid by the contractors rather than the construction workers. It is not yet clear if the Israeli contractors have agreed to the idea.