State Dept. urges Israel to repeal law it says increases migrants’ vulnerability

2017 Deposit Law, which withholds 20% of paychecks until workers leave the country, has made asylum seekers more susceptible to trafficking and pushed some to prostitution

African migrants take part in a protest in Tel Aviv on June 10, 2017,against the 'Deposit Law,' which requires them to deposit 20% of their salary in a fund which they can only take back after they leave the country. (Tomer Neuberg/Flash90)
African migrants take part in a protest in Tel Aviv on June 10, 2017,against the 'Deposit Law,' which requires them to deposit 20% of their salary in a fund which they can only take back after they leave the country. (Tomer Neuberg/Flash90)

The US State Department on Thursday called on Israel to repeal a 2017 law it said “significantly increases vulnerabilities to trafficking” for the African migrant population.

The Deposit Law, which came into effect on May 1, 2017, requires companies that employ asylum seekers to deduct 20 percent of their paychecks and deposit it into a special fund that only becomes available to the employees if they leave the country.

But in a global report on trafficking, the department, citing NGOs, said the law had been abused, and “some employers withheld but never deposited wages into the fund.”

“Furthermore, NGOs reported this law pushed migrants — particularly Eritrean women — into the black market, including prostitution, which exacerbated their vulnerability to trafficking. ”

During a legal appeal against the Deposit Law in 2018, the state revealed that as a result of the law, approximately 50% of working males in the asylum seeker community are making less than minimum wage.

Conversely, the report also stated that the Israeli government “demonstrated serious and sustained efforts” to convict traffickers and help victims and “continued to provide a wide range of protective services for victims of all forms of trafficking and to encourage victims to assist in the investigation and prosecution of their traffickers.”

Last month a report by NGO Kav LaOved, Hotline for Refugees and Migrants and Calcalist said companies that employ migrants have failed to pay an estimated NIS 700 million ($194 million) into special deposit funds mandated by the state as part of the Deposit Law — over 70% of the amount that should be in the funds.

In many cases, companies refrained from paying any money to the accounts and pocketed the sums.

The purpose of the Deposit Law is to encourage asylum seekers to leave the country by making their day-to-day life more difficult, according to the law’s sponsors and the Interior Ministry.

A woman takes care of children from families of African migrants at a daycare center in southern Tel Aviv, on May 28, 2015. The faces of the children were blurred to protect their identities. (Jack Guez/AFP)

There are about 35,000 asylum seekers in Israel, the vast majority from Sudan and Eritrea, who entered Israel starting in 2005. Many are fleeing persecution in their homelands, but right-wing politicians say most of the asylum seekers are only in Israel for economic opportunities.

In 2018, Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu ramped up plans to forcibly deport almost half of the asylum seekers in Israel to Uganda and Rwanda, a program that had previously been undertaken clandestinely.

In April of last year he agreed to a United Nations High Commission for Refugees plan which would have seen some refugees resettled in other countries and others given permission to remain in Israel. But, bowing to pressure from anti-immigration activists, Netanyahu canceled the plan hours later, and the asylum seeker community has continued to live in a legal limbo that allows them to work, live and access social services in Israel with strict conditions.

Asylum seekers generally work menial jobs at minimum wage in the restaurant, hospitality, construction or cleaning industries. According to the Interior Ministry, the average monthly salaries of asylum seekers before taxes and deductions was NIS 6,389 ($1,790) in November 2018, and NIS 4,375.5 ($1,226) after taxes and the deduction of the 20% deposit.

According to a poll from the Worker’s Hotline a year after the Deposit Law went into effect, the vast majority of asylum seekers, 89%, said the Deposit Law had forced them to buy less food for their families. And 94% of the respondents said they had started working longer hours.

The law has also forced asylum seekers to cut corners in other ways; for example, moving their children to cheaper, unregulated daycare centers with inadequate staffing for up to 12 hours per day.

As a result of the Deposit Law, thousands of asylum seekers began to look for under-the-table work, especially in construction, where workers are often not compensated correctly or forced to work in unsafe conditions. According to the poll, 60% of asylum seekers previously employed legally started looking for under-the-table work.

“The implementation of the law has been marked by multiple failings, and the negligent handling of the funds has resulted in the de facto confiscation of millions of shekels from workers by their employers, who fail to deposit the money in the Deposit Fund,” the Calcalist report said.

“The outcome of the law is the deduction of a fifth of the meager wages of asylum seekers, one of the most vulnerable groups of workers in the Israeli labor market,” it said.

Melanie Lidman contributed to this report.

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