We met Tesafay (ficticious name) at the Holot detention facility where he has been detained for a year and four months.  He is hoping to be released in four more months. Tesafay worked in a fashionable cafe in Tel Aviv for about three years before he was detained. The owners of the cafe employed him and other Eritreans through a private contractor. This may be due to the complicated legal process established by the Supreme Court regarding the employment of asylum seekers in ruling 6312/10 Kav LaOved et al v the State of Israel et al. Lacking clarification of the regulations by the authorities regarding employment of this population, it is likely that the owners of the cafe did not want to accept legal responsibility for the workers and this is why they opted to use a contracting company.

Unfortunately, the cafe chose to bring in a particularly abusive contractor that has recently been  shut down due to the huge number of complaints and legal suits regarding workers’ employment conditions. According to Tesafay, his hourly base wage was 25 NIS per hour.  The cafe paid the contractor 30 NIS for an hour’s worth of work plus the fee owed to the contractor.  A quick calculation shows that according to the law, this fee does not cover Tesafay’s hourly wage along with the cost of overtime and benefits that were due to him.  Therefore, it is clear that the contractor was exploiting Tesafay.

During his employment at the cafe, Tesafay worked over 300 hours of overtime. He tells us that his relationship with the managers was very good and that is why he did not complain about being paid only his 25 NIS per hour salary. His legal benefits were consistently withheld and he never received compensation for overtime, recuperation, or vacation. A quick review of his pay slips show that for overtime alone the contractor now owes Tesafay more than 100,000 NIS.

When I asked him why he did not come to us earlier to see if he was receiving full payment, he answered that he liked his work place and did not want, as he put it, to cause trouble. Later, while imprisoned within Holot, the daily routine of doing nothing and seeing despair everywhere, he finally gave up and chose to say something.

When I contacted the cafe owners, it seemed that they also actually and innocently loved their former worker. They asked about his welfare and wanted to know when he would be released and what would happen to him afterwards.  The owners of the café expressed resentment towards the contracting company that had hurt their worker but they did not understand that they were ultimately at fault for the irresponsible behavior of the contractor.  They had the power to take the time to look into the history of the company’s misdeeds which included dozens of complaints and suits against them.  In addition to this lack of research, if they had thought for a moment about what they were paying the contractor, they should have guessed at the abusive nature of its business.

Even if they did not mean to act badly towards their employee Tesafay, they could have shown more concern for him. They could have paid just a few extra more shekels per hour for overtime, they could have hired another worker to share the long hours, they could have hired a contractor who acted fairly, or ultimately, they could have hired him directly and paid him his legally owed salary and given him good working conditions. Any of these actions could have made the system relatively friendly and not based on exploitation.

At the end of 2013, Tesafay was called to the facility in Holot.  He informed his managers at the cafe and they said goodbye to him, sadly.  However, he did not receive the severance pay that was due to him according to the Ministry of Economy regulations. After so many years in which he paid taxes and financially supported himself, Tesafay was turned into a prisoner of the state that now finances and supports him at a facility whose cost has been calculated to be hundreds of millions of shekels.

In four months, Tesafay will be free and he will receive the same permit that he had had previously. He cannot be deported to his home country of Eritrea according to the law. He has submitted his request for asylum but has still not received a response. Who knows, perhaps Tesafay will even go back to his job at the cafe after he completes his 20 months of wasted time in the desert. We hope that this time both sides will be smarter and Tesafay will be employed according to the law with conditions that properly express the praise and love that the cafe owners feel towards him.

Translation by Sharon Kerpel

June 2015