Migrant workers who turn to KLO regarding problems with their labour rights report sexual harassment from their employers as well as their employer’s family members and employees. Many keep the pain to themselves. Who are these women? Why is it so easy to abuse them? They come from far away and are alone here without a family and community support network. And, there is an enormous power imbalance between them and their employers. Their vulnerability stems from a combination of circumstances, and so it is essential to have protective measures in place before their employment is set up and afterward.
Migrant Caregivers: The Catch
Caregivers find it difficult to protect themselves from sexual abuse because of the following factors, which make their employment unique:
- Most caregivers reside in the home where they work. So, leaving employment because of the abuse means the immediate loss of a roof over their head.
- Caregivers are alone with the patient (their employer) most of the day, and no one knows about what is happening inside the house. These circumstances make it is easy to take advantage of a caregiver’s vulnerability, because if she reports harassment or violence by the employer or someone connected to them it will be her word against theirs.
- Some patients experience mental health problems and impaired cognitive functioning, which may manifest in inappropriate sexual behavior.
- Family members of the patient often manage financial aspects of the employment, and they may exert financial control and treat the caregiver however they want.
- A caregiver is responsible for taking care of an older person or someone with disabilities, thus leaving the job due to sexual harassment or violence could be perceived as abandonment of a vulnerable individual. She could lose her work visa and fear of this happening often outweighs considerations of personal safety and dignity.
- Caregivers often have to pay high brokerage fees in their country of origin in order to obtain a work permit in Israel and therefore face immense pressure to continue working until they repay the money they borrowed to cover the fees. The fear of not being able to resolve this debt also outweighs considerations of personal safety and dignity.
- An employer can find ways to prevent the caregiver from receiving the wages and benefits she deserves, and she knows it. If her status in Israel is illegal, she may be deported with nothing.
Migrant Agricultural Workers: The Exploitation
In the agricultural sector, nearly 700 migrant women work shoulder to shoulder with approximately 22,000 male migrant workers (they are approximately 3% of total migrant workforce in agriculture). The vast majority of them come from Thailand through a bilateral agreement with Israel. They live on site at the farms where they are employed, in living quarters they share with a majority of men. How easy is it to take advantage of them in this situation? Very. Migrant women experience abuse in different ways:
- Migrant women employed on farms are on the periphery of society and targeted by both employers and other workers.
- Migrant women told KLO that they do not feel safe in their living quarters, which often cannot be locked, and reported being forced to share showers and bathrooms with other male workers. Although there are regulations obligating an employer to provide female workers with separate living quarters, showers and toilets, in practice there is insufficient enforcement to ensure that this actually happens.
- In addition to sexual violence and harassment, migrant women in agriculture report exploitation based on their gender, such as being sent to clean an employer’s house or the workers’ living quarters, having to look after children and performing other “feminine” jobs.
Like caregivers, most migrant women employed in agriculture do not contact the agencies that are supposed to mediate between them and the authorities for several reasons:
- Women fear that a complaint will result in dismissal, loss of their visa and deportation.
- The responsible agencies take their time in taking action to address workers’ complaints and do not offer real help.
- Beyond the inherent dependence on their employer typical for migrant workers, Thai women are not proficient in Hebrew or English and find it hard to communicate with those in official capacities to whom they should turn to report abuse. Thus, they are at a loss as to whom they should turn and how to explain what happened. Since they often work in remote areas, they have geographic barriers, on top of linguistic ones, that make it virtually impossible to file a complaint.
Women should feel safe in their workplaces, especially women living in a foreign country who must depend on the men around them for their safety and dignity. It is possible and necessary to protect them from harm and abuse, and there are ways to do it:
🛡️ Increased enforcement by PIBA and consequences for abusive employers, such as denying them permits to employ migrant workers.
🛡️ Instead of relying only on complaints, enforcement should be initiated against employers who do not institute preventive measures per the Regulations for the Prevention of Sexual Harassment.
🛡️ Enforcement of regulations requiring employers to maintain separate residences for male and female migrant agricultural workers.
🛡️ Prohibition of employing only one migrant worker on a farm.
🛡️ Promoting awareness of sexual harassment and violence among other workers, employers and relevant professional associations and establishing social services for survivors in their native language.
🛡️ Providing support services to survivors similar to the shelter available for survivors of trafficking.
🛡️ Adding mental health to the basket health services to which migrant workers are entitled.
Sexual exploitation of migrant women is not a destiny and it is our duty, as a society, to eradicate this ugly phenomenon. It must stop.