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Labour migration | Israel |

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Labour migration

Jan Schneider

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Until about 15 years ago, the foreign immigration into the Israeli labour market was a negligible category. High birth rates, a comparatively good education system and a permanent migration surplus brought about by immigration secured a constantly adequate supply of workers for almost all areas of the labour market.

Underpaid activities with low social prestige, above all in agriculture and the building industry, were carried out by a reserve of Palestinian workers from the Occupied Territories, who commuted daily or weekly into the Israeli heartland. According to official labour market statistics, during the 1980s at times there were more than 110,000 Palestinians working in Israel – up to 7% of all employed persons.

Figure 1: Non-Israeli employees in the Israeli labour market (bpb) Lizenz: cc by-nc-nd/2.0/de

The first serious shortages came during the 1991 Gulf War, when Israel closed the borders with the West Bank and Gaza Strip for several weeks and the Israeli construction industry practically came to a standstill. In the early 1990s the Israeli army sealed the areas off ever more frequently. Palestinians were unable to pursue their occupations in Israel's fields and cities or were only able to do so sporadically. The noticeable shortage of cheap labour increased calls for alternatives. Political attempts to steer the occupations of those involved in the mass immigration from the Soviet Union that started in 1989/90 towards the affected areas of the low-pay sector failed. As a result, the shortage of workers was to be relieved by recruiting guest workers from overseas. Since 1991 a law on the occupation of foreign workers has regulated the arrangements. As a result, the number of guest workers grew continually to more than a quarter of a million in the year 2002. Since 2006, after clear decreases in the years 2003 to 2005, a slight increase has again been recorded. The Israeli government's aim to reduce the employment of Palestinians to zero by 2008 for security reasons does not appear to have been attained. Nonetheless, a comparison of employment figures since the year 2000 shows a clear tendency to replace local and regional workforces with guest workers from abroad (see Fig. 1).

Figure 2: Countries of origin of the new immigrants with work permits 2006 (bpb) Lizenz: cc by-nc-nd/2.0/de

Foreigners are permitted employment in just five economic sectors: in agriculture, in the building and construction trade, large-scale technical industry, home care and the catering industry. With the exception of care for the sick and aged, fixed annual quotas are determined for all areas. In the year 2006, for example, 15,000 foreigners were newly employed in the building and construction trade, 26,000 in agriculture and 3,200 in other services (in fact 32,700 guest workers entered the country with a work permit). For 2007 the quotas for construction and agriculture were each increased slightly. Foreign workers come from a relatively broad spectrum of countries. Some countries, however, stand out in terms of numbers (see Fig. 2).

Figure 3: Distribution of the sexes of the new immigrants with work permits 2006, selected countries of origin (bpb) Lizenz: cc by-nc-nd/2.0/de

In addition, the sectors of the labour market demonstrate a clear allocation bias based on regional origin and gender. Thus the majority of guest workers in the construction sector come from Romania, China and Turkey, while predominantly women from the Philippines, Nepal and the states of the former Soviet Union are employed in care work. The majority of guest workers employed in agriculture are of Thai origin. Figure 3 shows the gender distribution for selected groups. In relation to the Israeli population, the foreign employment dimension is entirely comparable to the migration of guest workers to European countries up to the beginning of the 1970s. According to the National Bureau of Statistics, at the end of the year 2006 there were a total of 102,000 foreigners living in Israel who had entered the country with work permits. The total number of foreign workers (including those who entered the country on tourist visas and did not comply with exit requirements) was estimated at 186,000 at that same point in time. ).

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