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The power of legal aid to support vulnerable and marginalised workers

Israel / Freedom for Justice / 8 feb 2018

Migrant workers represent an extremely vulnerable population group within Israeli society. For those employed in low-paid sectors such as caregiving, housecleaning and agriculture, rights violations are common, including payment below minimum wage, unpaid or insufficient overtime, termination due to pregnancy, denial of health, pension and severance benefits and long working hours. For refugees and asylum seekers the situation can be even worse. The government has been openly hostile towards this section of the population, 90% of whom are from Eritrea and 10% from Sudan. In the spring of 2017 the government announced that they would take 20% from asylum seekers' salaries, which they can only access when they depart Israel, in a bid to get them to leave the country. This situation worsened in early 2018, when the government gave asylum seekers a stark choice: deportation to an undisclosed third-party country, or an indefinite jail sentence. Refugees and asylum seekers awaiting decisions on their status often turn to exploitative employment characterised by physical labour, long hours, and salaries many times below minimum wage.

It is within this context that Kav LaOved – Worker's Hotline (KLO) endeavours to defend workers’ rights and the enforcement of Israeli labour law, which is designed to protect every worker in Israel, irrespective of nationality, religion, gender and legal status. They support vulnerable workers in Israeli society, through individual assistance, legal and procedural support, public advocacy, cooperative partnership with governmental bodies, and human rights-educational efforts. The organization represents workers from several sectors – in particular those working under minimum wage – such as migrant workers, agricultural workers, hourly and temporary workers, refugees and asylum seekers and Palestinians working in Israel.

*Jon is a refugee from Eritrea. He fled his country and came to Israel in 2010. The journey, which was long and arduous, included passing through the Sinai Peninsula, which is known for its cost to human lives. When he first arrived in Israel, he lived with a large group of people in one cramped room, and like everyone who had just arrived he wanted to start working so he could support himself. At first, Jon worked for employers who took advantage of him. They made him work long hours (without receiving overtime pay) and often without breaks. One month, he didn't receive his pay check. When Jon visited KLO, he worked with a paralegal volunteer, who helped him recover the pay he was owed. Jon continued to visit KLO several times after that with similar issues. Wanting to help others, he decided to begin volunteering with KLO, serving as a translator and a one-stop "know-your-rights" resource for other members of the Eritrean community.

Since its founding, KLO has used multiple avenues to raise workers' awareness of their labour rights, including workshops, lectures and one-on-one consultations. Over two years, 3,250 workers have participated in workshops in English, Hebrew, Thai, and Arabic about their rights and Israeli labour law. Using the law to advocate for workers’ rights and recover the earnings/compensation due to them, KLO opened 7,000 individual cases for workers and helped them recover over $10 million in 2017. Together they are addressing the injustices that many migrant workers face every day and fighting for their right to equal treatment.

*Name changed to protect identity

Kav LaOved is a finalist for #WalkTogether Prize for Courage as part of The Grassroots Justice Prize.