Israeli law concerning employment eligibility, work conditions and labour rights of asylum seekers does not provide for clear and explicitly stated norms. Such issues are rather found in a juridical grey zone in which permission to work is granted not by explicitly entitling asylum seekers to work – rather by not preventing them from doing so.
Indeed, visa 2(a)(5), which is the stay permit granted to asylum seekers entitled to temporary protection from refoulement, explicitly states that [it] does not constitute a work permit. At first sight, such a statement might suggest that asylum seekers granted temporary protection from refoulement are not allowed to work.
However, from a juridical standpoint, it only indicates that the purposes for which that specific visa was issued are not work ones – yet it does not prohibit those entitled to temporary protection from working. In support of this it is also important to notice that the potential scenario of asylum seekers staying in Israel for an undetermined period of time without being allowed to work would be neither feasible nor desirable, since employment in a regular job helps preventing the risk of resorting to illegal activities as means to earn enough money to conduct a decent life.
Ambivalence with regard to work was even greater before 2011, when employers were threatened by the possibility of legal actions being conducted against them in the case in which they hired asylum seekers. Though in 2011 the Israeli High Court of Justice ruled against the imposition of fines and sanctions in those situations, employers remain reluctant when it comes to hiring asylum seekers, precisely because of the lack of explicit authorisation and entitlement to work.
JACC’s actions in order to challenge those misunderstandings focuses on giving employers correct and reliable information concerning hiring of asylum seekers. This action is twofold, involving both employers and employees. In fact, it is not only important to inform employers of the possibility to hire asylum seekers, but also to assist the latter anytime they might face challenges once they are hired – especially with regard to the respect of their rights. According to Daniel, a deeply-committed volunteer in JACC’s Rights Advocacy Team, the most common scenario in which asylum seekers face the risk of their labour rights being disregarded is that of irregular employment: in those cases, workers are hired without any contracts – and they consequently have no guarantees as for vacation, health, etc.
As Daniel pointed out, asylum seekers’ constant condition of uncertainty and precariousness, their limited handling of the language and most of all their narrow web of relations might make everything more difficult for asylum seekers when it comes to claiming their rights: what they mainly fear is being sent to Holot or being fired. However, in most cases the very thing that prevents them from claiming their rights is their lack of awareness of their very rights as for labour.
This is exactly the gap that JACC aims to bridge, first of all by creating contacts between the community of asylum seekers and the Israeli community, and in addition to this by assisting them in everyday problems.
In this sense, one of the most effective projects coordinated by JACC is paralegal assistance granted by the Rights Advocacy Team. Made up of volunteers, almost all students, this team helps asylum seekers who claim they have been victims of abuse at work and tackles exploitation. According to Daniel, the most frequent action taken is to try and mediate between the employer and the former employee after the latter is fired.
For instance, since Israeli labour law requires employers to pay compensation for dismissal if the worker is fired after more than one year of employment, it is not uncommon for employers to try and avoid such a duty by firing asylum seekers – with no concrete reason in support of such an action – before that term expires, for instance 11 months since s/he started to work. What JACC does once being informed of this kind of situation is contacting both the employer and the former employee and help them meet and find an agreement as for compensation. Most of the times this intervention by JACC proves to be successful, even though it is sometimes necessary to continue the proceeding before a competent court because the parties cannot come to terms.
In the past, JACC’s action in the field of employment has proved to be particularly successful even in assisting asylum seekers through workshops aimed to raise labour rights awareness. The Know Your Rights workshop, for instance, provided participants with information and advice that helped them identifying and avoiding situations of possible exploitation or disregard of their rights.
Asylum seekers are often blamed and presented, especially in political discourse, as those who “steal” locals’ job opportunities. However, their vulnerable social condition and the a priori closed gates to access certain position – for instance due to strict requirements as for skills or education – make it quite difficult to rationally think this is really the case.
Rather, employment constitutes for asylum seekers the most important key to affirm themselves with dignity as an integral part of their host society and to contribute to its development.