Migrant Rights caught up with Israeli human rights activist Yotam Politser in Kathmandu to learn more about the challenges that Nepali migrants face in Israel. Israel is an increasingly popular country among Nepali migrants seeking labour opportunities overseas, and is currently home to approximately 12,000 Nepalis, who mainly work in care-giving and agriculture.
While Israel has a reputation for paying better wages and having a more established concept of human rights norms for workers than most other Middle Eastern countries, migrant workers still face problems such as corrupt recruitment agents and a lack of information about the kind of support available to them in-country.
Yotam is currently based in Kathmandu and works for Tevel b’Tzedek (The Earth in Justice). He has wide experience working with Nepali migrant workers, both pre-departure and on their return to Nepal.
M-R: What expectations do Nepalis have when they start the process of migrating to Israel? Do they have an understanding of what to expect when they go?
Yotam Politser: Israel is one of the most sought-after destinations among Nepali migrant workers because the wages are higher than other Middle Eastern countries, and it is generally safer. Nepalis generally go to Israel to work in agriculture or as caregivers. The average monthly wage is $700-900 for a Nepali caregiver and those working in agriculture can earn up to $1300 if they put in
a lot of overtime. They’ve often heard from friends and relatives that it is Israel is very developed and understand that there is some concept of human rights there. However, they don’t necessarily know who they would go to if they had a problem in Israel.
M-R: What kind of problems do Nepali migrant workers face in Israel?
YP: The biggest problem is fees paid to recruitment brokers. Under Israeli law, manpower companies can charge migrant workers up to 3000 Shekels (US$800) for the recruiting process and job placement. What actually happens is that migrants are being charged by brokers in both Nepal and Israel, which means that they run up huge debts.
The problem with manpower companies is that they want to try to get as many workers into the country as possible, and they are flooding the market with unskilled labour. If a migrant worker is abused by their employer and wants to leave, it is very difficult to switch to another job because the supply of migrant workers in the market is so much greater than demand.
Nepali care-workers end up in a very difficult position if their employer dies, which unfortunately happens a lot because most of them are tasked with looking after the elderly. If this happens, they have two months to find another job under Israeli law. If they haven’t found a job in this time, they become illegal. If this happens, a lot of workers stay on in the country anyway and find jobs in sectors which they are not permitted to work in – for example, taking illegal jobs as cooks, cleaners, waiters and security guards. Being out of the formal employment sector means that they are more vulnerable to human rights abuses, such as being underpaid.
M-R: What steps can be taken to help Nepalis to have a safer experience of migration to Israel?
YP: Compared to other countries in the region, there is quite a lot of help available to migrant workers in Israel. The problem is that most migrant workers don’t know who to contact if they are in trouble – for example, if there is an employment dispute or they have a health problem. Doctors Without Borders provides free medical care to migrant workers but a lot of them just don’t know about this service. So the first thing to do is to make workers aware of their rights and tell them where they can go to for help. For most Nepali migrants, their only source of information about Israel is the manpower company which gave them the work placement, but the manpower companies have no interest in making them aware of their rights.
M-R: Israel has periodically imposed bans on Nepali migrants workers (for example, in 2009). Do you think that bans on certain nationalities are a good way to manage migration?
YP: Israel banned Nepalis from working as caregivers in 2009 because every survey that had been carried out on labour showed that there were more workers than needed in the sector. I think if the market is flooded, then it is reasonable to impose a ban. But it would be better for Israel to develop a system of recruiting workers from overseas in a way that is more sensitive to market conditions instead of imposing bans. That way we won’t end up with oversupply in certain sectors, which puts the workers themselves in a vulnerable position. One idea would be to nationalise the recruitment of foreign labour rather than leaving it to the manpower companies, who are driven by their own financial gain.
M-R: So are there any models that other countries have used for managing migration that you think that Israel or Nepal could learn from?
YP: I think that the arrangement that Nepal and Korea have is really great. The Korean government manages all recruitment from developing countries itself, and no private manpower agents are involved in the process. All prospective workers have to go through a standardised test in the Embassy in Kathmandu to asses their skills, and if they pass, they are entered into a computerised database.
Korean employers looking to recruit Nepali workers go directly to the Korean Embassy in Kathmandu. There is an extra charge for this service – $200 per worker – but this goes towards the provision of basic social services for migrant workers. In Korea, migrants have access to social workers, so they have somewhere to go to for support.
Korea was very firm with Nepal about the recruitment of Nepali nationals; the message basically was ‘we will do this our way, our we won’t employ Nepalis in our country’. Their system does seem to be working better than the private sector approach.
I think that manpower companies on both the Israeli and the Nepali side have been irresponsible, for example by charging workers too much, or bringing more workers into the market than needed. If recruitment were to be nationalised it could cut out a lot of problems.
M-R: For most Nepalis who go to Israel (and other Middle Eastern countries), migration is only temporary. Do returning workers face challenges when they come back to their home communities after a stint working abroad?
YP: There are a lot of challenges for returning migrant workers, especially married women women. One thing that we’ve seen a lot is women returning home after a couple of years working abroad to find that their husband has remarried, and that she is effectively cast out of the family despite the fact that they have been supported by her remittances. A lot of women face pressure from their families to go back to Israel or another country when they return to Nepal so that they can continue to send money. Families become very dependent on this new source of income, and want to make big purchases such as land or a car. It is very difficult for the women, who may have only seen their children once during a five-year period of working abroad.
In Israel, there is a lot more gender equality and migrant women experience freedoms that they would never have had in Nepali society. Coming back to a patriarchal society after working overseas can be very tough for a returning migrant woman. Jobs in Nepal are nowhere near as well-paid as those in Israel, which can be frustrating for returnees.
M-R: What steps could be taken to help returning migrants re-integrate?
YP: There should be counseling available to returning workers both in Israel, before they leave, and in Nepal. Workers are in need of advice about what to do when they return home, and how best to use the money that they have saved. There is also a need for family counseling to help returnees reintegrate with their families after a long stint abroad.
Nepalis often come back from Israel with a lot of new skills, but there is no channel for them to put these skills to use in their home countries For example, many Nepalis work in agriculture in Israel, and have learned a lot about modern farming methods. I know a lot of individuals who have worked as farm labourers in Israel and learned a lot, but don’t have an outlet for their new knowledge. There needs to be more attention given to this area because this could really be beneficial for Nepal, given that most migrant workers come from communities which are dependent on agriculture.
Originally published at Migrant Rights on September 14,2010. Shared here with permission.