By Idit Lebovitch, Coordinator of Caregiving Workers

Every year, Kav LaOved provides assistance to hundreds of migrant workers who are victims of sexual abuse or harassment. Many migrant workers initially come to Kav LaOved regarding violation of their worker’s rights, but often, as stories of their employment unfold, we learn of sexual harassment and exploitation of varying degrees of severity. Migrant workers in caregiving are a group that is very vulnerable to sexual assault due to the sector’s special nature of employment, which requires workers to live in the employer’s home and be at their side for extensive spans of time. It also requires a great deal of physical intimacy with the employer (often the worker helps the employer shower, use the toilet, and get dressed). The fact that the work of migrant caregivers is “around the clock” causes blurring of boundaries between work hours and private time, and even de-facto forces social isolation for the worker.

Caregivers – especially those who have stayed in Israel more than 51 months and cannot renew their visa upon switching employers – fear immediate dismissal and expulsion from Israel if they dare file a complaint against their employer or the employer’s family. In the case that the worker does complain, the dismissal is accompanied by the employer’s refusal to pay obligatory compensations to the worker, utilizing the lack of legal status to delay payment until the worker is deported from Israel. This phenomenon appears to be widespread and arises from the following factors.

Relationship between the employer and their family and the caregiver

We have found in many cases that the employer and their family’s perception of the migrant caregiver is informed by a mixture of racism, sexism, objectification of the caregiver and distorted perception of the employer/employee relationship that produces a proprietary connection or sense of “ownership” of the worker. At times, employers and their family members see the migrant workers as de-facto servants or slaves who must serve the employer and their family in any task. For example, in addition to caregiving, many migrant workers are required to clean the homes of the children of the employer, care for those childrens’ kids, and cook and wash for them. Sometimes they are “borrowed” for similar needs by employer’s family friends, all without payment of course.

Caregivers are sometimes ordered to have sex with the employer or with a family member. Caregivers are also exposed to sexual assault and harassment from the employer’s family (children, grandchildren and other family members). We also found that family members who are aware of the employer’s sexual demands often serve as messengers and lobby on their behalf when the employee does not consent to his sexual proposals. They then threaten to fire her, and “explain” to her that having sex with the employer is “part of the job” and so on.

Weakening of the workers by the state

The state is a significant partner in creating and strengthening these vulnerabilities. For example, the state enforces “binding arrangements” in which migrant workers are dependent on a specific employer to maintain legal residency.  The state imposes severe sanctions for leaving the employer: loss of license to reside in Israel. Despite the apparent cancellation of “binding arrangements” following the High Court ruling that it is a form of contemporary enslavement, most of the workers still cannot change employers in practice as they are totally dependent on the recruitment agency to find a new employer. The agencies have no interest in finding new employers for them, and would much prefer to recruit new employees and thus charge and receive more exorbitant fees. In addition, caregivers have few or no opportunities to learn of employers with valid employment permits or how to contact them on their own.

Kav LaOved’s stance is to immediately revoke the permits of employers when there has been basis to complaints of sexual assault and harassment by them. It is not enough to “investigate” the employer by sending inspectors from the Ministry of Interior or the Ministry of Industry Trade and Labor. Unfortunately, the Ministry of Interior very rarely denies or cancels permits for employers to hire caregivers. Our position is that this pattern of sending inspectors in lieu of revoking permits is inappropriate, ineffective and illegal. Continuing to send workers to the house of an employer who has accumulated a number of sexual assault complaints, without even bothering to inform the employee, reflects negligence and indifference on the part of the state to the fate and well-being of caregiving workers.

Inherent weak economic, social and political status of migrant workers

Migrant workers come to Israel due to severe economic hardship in their countries, and to help provide for their families. They pay, like all migrant workers, thousands of dollars in “mediation fees,” for arranging arrival and residency permits, to agents and recruitment agencies in their countries of origin. In most cases, migrant workers take on exorbitant interest loans and mortgage their property and family assets to finance these fees. The loans are meant to be returned with the wage from work in Israel, which can take years. As a result, a powerful economic dependence forms between migrant workers and their employers, which leaves migrant workers more vulnerable to all forms of abuse, including sexual assault.

The workers’ cultural backgrounds or religious views additionally cast stigma on reporting harassment and sexual assault and taking action. In most cases this leads the caregivers’ decision not to share with anyone the difficult trauma they experienced. Sharing details of an incident of sexual abuse with another person may lead the worker to social ostracism by her community; in extreme cases this can be life threatening.

Migrant workers’ weak social status in Israel stems from their foreign origin. They do not know the local culture and are not fluent in the Hebrew language, and sometimes even their English is limited. They are not familiar with Israeli law and therefore do not even know when the employer’s actions are a criminal offense. Due to fear of being fired and losing their ability to work and reside in Israel, victims are often afraid to contact the police or immigration authorities (due to the negative image of these bodies among migrant workers), especially when they reside in Israel illegally. Additionally, workers are afraid of losing the roof over their heads (which they share with their employer), as most cannot carry the burden of paying rent.