A construction site near Jerusalem in 2008 Baz Ratner/Reuters/Alamy Stock Photo. All rights reserved
Israel’s National Action Plan to Combat Human Trafficking is blind to the root causes of exploitation. But there are alternatives
For a time, and from a very specific point of view, Israel’s anti-trafficking efforts could be seen as a success story. Trafficking for prostitution, identified as a significant problem in the late 1990s, was practically eradicated by the late 2000s. The Israeli state accomplished this by combining aggressive prosecution and significant penalties for perpetrators with strict border control measures, deporting victims and preventing new ones from entering. These measures, while contested, were highly effective in achieving their objectives.
Israel’s response to trafficking for labour exploitation, on the other hand, was never as successful. It lacked the commitment the government showed to ending trafficking for sexual exploitation, as well as a strong understanding of what fuels and shapes severe labour exploitation in Israel today.
The new National Action Plan to Combat Human Trafficking 2019-2024, published in early 2019 by the Office of the National Anti-Trafficking Coordinator in the Israeli Ministry of Justice, unfortunately offers more of the same. Its emphasis on awareness raising, training and victim support, combined with its neglect of the laws and practices enabling abuse in the first place, makes the same tired mistakes. Without a change of approach this plan will lead to the same unsatisfactory results.
Bound to employment
Few examples illustrate this better than the national action plan’s lack of engagement with Israel’s tied visa system. ‘Binding arrangements’, as they are known, tie legal residence and employment in Israel to a specific employer. Leave the employer, and the worker risks detention and deportation. This system was declared unconstitutional by Israel’s Supreme Court in 2006, yet significant numbers of the non-citizen workers in Israel are still subject to some form of binding.
The largest groups of non-citizen workers in Israel are documented migrant workers (more than 100,000 in 2022) and documented Palestinian workers from the occupied territories (about 87,000 at the end of 2021). Most migrant workers are found in the care, agriculture and construction sectors, while most Palestinian workers are in construction, agriculture, and, to a lesser extent, manufacturing, services, healthcare and hospitality. Many of these individuals, although definitely not all of them, cannot leave their employer without losing their visas.
The plan does not commit to ending binding once and for all.
Palestinian workers are tied to employers due to the government’s concern that their unsupervised presence in Israel will threaten national security, and reform introduced in late 2020 to enable them to freely change employers was ineffective. Caregivers are restricted from moving between geographical areas, and if they have been in Israel for more than 51 months (about 40% of the migrant workers in the care sector) they cannot change employers at all. Thousands of migrant workers are tied to foreign construction companies, including workers building the light rail in the Tel-Aviv area (whose abuse was well-documented). And students in various ‘educational’ agriculture programmes are tied to specific employers, often working in appalling conditions of little educational value.
These aspects of Israel’s migration policy are not discussed in the government’s anti-trafficking action plan. Specific groups or sectors, such as Palestinian workers and foreign construction companies, were mentioned as deserving further study. But there was no commitment to end binding once and for all.
In need of an alternative plan
In light of the government’s omissions, the TraffLab project at Tel Aviv University (led by Professor Hila Shamir) began to formulate a catalogue of recommendations that offers Israel a completely different approach to dealing with labour trafficking. We have, aptly, called it the Alternative Anti-Trafficking Action Plan, and have made it available for download in both English and Hebrew.
The alternative plan takes a ‘labour approach’ to human trafficking. This means that it seeks to address the economic, social and legal conditions that cause vulnerability and exposure to exploitation. It also tries to narrow power disparities by strengthening the bargaining position of workers vis-à-vis their employers, and by creating effective tools for workers and their representatives to transform and improve their working conditions.
This stands in marked contrast to most contemporary policies, which almost exclusively focus on criminal enforcement, restrictions on migration, and protection of human rights and assistance for identified trafficked persons. This approach addresses only the symptoms and does not alter the underlying causes of human trafficking. In some cases, it can even worsen those underlying causes.
The alternative plan targets several key policy areas. While the overarching themes of these areas (prevention, enforcement, and partnership) are similar to those of the dominant approach, the strategies proposed are markedly different. For example, it places binding arrangements front and centre. It insists on the complete and effective elimination of all absolute binding arrangements as one of its main policy recommendations. In doing so it distinguishes between large and small sectors. In large sectors, it suggests that individuals be allowed, at the very least, to move between employers within the sector. The state officially adopted this arrangement following the court decision in 2006, however, as the examples above show, many workers are excluded from the new arrangement.
Even all this is not enough to solve the problems.
In small sectors, where jobs require unique sets of skills, a case-by-case assessment may be necessary. Enhanced enforcement measures should be implemented at both the recruitment and employment stages to limit the risk that workers will be coerced into abusive working conditions through a perceived lack of alternatives. And practical obstacles preventing migrant workers from changing employers legally – obstacles such as language barriers and lack of information – need to be removed. But even all this is not enough to solve the problems. To effectively address Israel’s many challenges when it comes to non-citizen labour, it needs appropriate protective labour laws reinforced by effective enforcement, a commitment to eliminate recruitment fees, and many other measures.
We explore many of these measures in the plan’s chapters. ‘Prevention’, the largest section of the plan, includes discussions of migration policy and labour market, recruitment fees, and the privatisation of regulatory functions to private manpower agencies. ‘Enforcement’ includes criminal justice but also the need to enforce protective employment legislation. And ‘partnership’ considers the potential role of migrant communities and trade unions – actors often overlooked by anti-trafficking policymakers. Each chapter of the plan introduces a problematic aspect of the migrant labour regime and concludes with policy guidelines for change.
In all, the Alternative Anti-Trafficking Action Plan offers an ambitious vision and plan of action for a possible policy agenda. It is firmly based on the existing legal framework and the current situation in Israel, yet its fresh perspective recognises not only the forces driving human trafficking in Israel but also the limitations of the solutions adopted thus far. At all points it proposes alternative solutions for addressing them effectively.
The Alternative Ant-Trafficking Action Plan is available for download in English and Hebrew. A launch event will take place on 27 June (please register beforehand). We welcome requests for information and consultation about the process that led to this plan or the policy areas we focused on, or any other aspect that might be helpful for similar projects.