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Israel has always treated migrant workers as second-class residents — the hostage crisis is no different

Israel’s migrant workforce has been systematically cut off from opportunities and privileges within Israeli society

As the war between Hamas and Israel consumes the world’s attention, one group of victims remains underdiscussed: The dozens of caregivers and agricultural workers from India, Nepal, Thailand and other Asian countries who were brutally killed, injured or taken hostage as part of Hamas’ Oct. 7 attack on Israel.

These victims are among the many migrant workers who help cement Israel’s economic foundations: Israel’s economy relies on the contributions of the over 50,000 migrant workers extended permits, with the majority from Asia. But the plight of migrant workers who fell victim to Hamas’ attack has been treated as secondary. Families of Thai hostages recently said they had received no communications from Israel’s government in the month since their loved ones were kidnapped.

Yet even before falling victim to Hamas, these workers were weaponized by an Israeli right wing to reinforce a narrow national identity. The current war’s migrant casualties has made these workers’ need for greater legal protection even starker.

Migrant workers are generally ineligible for Israeli citizenship and military participation. They have neither ballots nor bullets, rendering them particularly vulnerable during exigent times. Yet the Israeli government has sought to strengthen residency and citizenship requirements to make it harder for those workers to make a permanent home.

These workers’ presence in Israel reflects one of the major causes of today’s war: the effort to sustain the Israeli economy while restricting access to Israeli society.

Until the 1990s, much of this work was performed by Palestinian workers, who traveled into Israel from the West Bank and Gaza. But in the wake of the First Intifada, ongoing conflict and security concerns rendered such labor mobility untenable. In that decade, the percentage of Gazans employed within Israel fell to 15 percent. Overseas workers began to take their place.

The decision to seek an international labor force was both fraught and intentional; then-Labor Minister Ora Namir reversed her earlier opposition to foreign workers and expressly tied efforts to secure migrant labor to security considerations. In the wake of Hamas’ ascent to power, beginning in 2006, Israel imposed even tighter restrictions on work permits for Palestinians from both Gaza and the West Bank.

In recent years, Israel has forged bilateral labor agreements with Sri Lanka for in-home caregiving; with Thailand for agricultural workers; and with Georgia for workers in long-term care facilities. Workers like these are permitted to live and work in Israel for a limited period, such as five years, after which they must leave the country or apply for an extension based on the needs of their employer. (While Israel has actively sought to bring in migrant laborers on a temporary basis, it has also sought to limit work opportunities for asylum seekers from Eritrea and Sudan who seek a permanent home in the country — a contrast that highlights the Israeli government’s efforts to maintain the economy through temporary workers who will not alter the country’s demographics.)

Israel’s message to these workers, on whom it relies to perform demanding and often low-paying jobs, has always been clear: You are welcome to work for us, but not to join us.

In recent years, Israel deported caregiver mothers, arguing that they violated their visas by having children, in a clear effort to avoid granting those children citizenship. Those deportations persisted despite concerns raised by Israel’s then-president in 2019 and express denunciations by Knesset members.

These restrictive labor programs are part of the current Israeli government’s commitment to a “Jewish” character for the state. That commitment culminated with the 2018 Basic Law, which took steps toward establishing second-class citizenship for non-Jewish people, including by limiting the role of the Arabic language, and the more recent subordination of a Supreme Court perceived as too solicitous to Palestinian and secular rights. (These efforts to remake Israeli society were met with widespread protests earlier this year.)

By sustaining Israeli society through workers with no claim to long-term presence in the country, let alone citizenship, the right-wing interests behind these developments can barricade Israeli identity against a more universal vision.

Even by the perverse logic that each side uses to justify civilian deaths, migrants deserve to be more than collateral damage. As Chumporn Jirachart, the father of one of the Thai hostages, said, Thais “are not involved in any of the conflict between Israel and Palestine. We are just there to work and earn money so we can have better lives.”

War will not end labor migration to Israel. Rather, it will amplify the need for caregivers, as reservists are called away from family obligations, and soldiers deployed to the frontlines return with new needs. After Israeli-Palestinian tensions erupted in 2021, the Philippines issued a temporary ban on workers departing for Israel. But within months, the Philippines lifted the ban and began sending caregivers again.

Now, even as the Philippines Department of Migrant Workers is currently facilitating the departure of many caregivers seeking to leave Israel in light of the war, it has announced its intention to make sure such workers will be granted reentry “should they wish to return to the country in the event the clashes settle down.”

The situation can and must change. All parties should agree that migrant hostages deserve immediate release. More generally, it will be incumbent on third-party countries, civil society groups and caregivers themselves to renew calls for rights and protections.

In the longer term, to assure that these migrant workers have full civil rights and a voice in the society they sustain, Israel should ratify international agreements like the Convention on the Protection of the Rights of All Migrant Workers, which prioritizes support for families of deceased migrants and related benefits for their children in Israel.

Countries like Thailand and the Philippines must also strengthen the position of their workers in their bilateral agreements with Israel. For example, based on its research of Thai agricultural workers, Physicians for Human Rights Israel has recommended periodic health tests and greater access to translation and mental health services as well as greater sanctions for employers that break the law. This conflict also illustrates the need to reform the practice of requiring migrants to pay “recruitment fees” for jobs in Israel; the debt from those fees is leaving workers trapped far from home, even as many wish to leave Israel in the wake of the war.

Finally, posthumous benefits might include body repatriation clauses, which cover the transportation of bodies back to families, as well as guarantees that workers are paid for the full month in which they pass away. The new world of transnational care work and resulting migration demands novel legal protections, especially during war.

Much of the world’s attention is focused on the millions of Israelis reeling from Hamas’ brutality and the millions of Gazans threatened by Israel’s unapologetic response. But we must also recognize the migrants caught in the middle, whose lives, while foundational, are too easily forgotten.

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