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What place do immigrant workers have in Israel?

A Thai worker sorts and packs strawberries in a farm shed near the central Israeli town of Netanya. Tens of thousands of foreign workers are legally employed in Israel, and by some estimates, just as many are working illegally, filling the menial jobs in agriculture and construction that Israelis decline to do.

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Kai Ryssdal: Immigration to Israel was up last year, about 16 percent. In all, 19,000 Jews from abroad settled in Israel last year as new citizens. But migrant workers have been coming as well, for jobs in elder-care and agriculture. Israel invited them in to replace Palestinians who it saw as security risks. Most foreign workers are in Israel legally, but they are not there without controversy.

Marketplace's Alisa Roth reports.


Alisa Roth: Israel is a nation of immigrants. But this isn't quite what its founding fathers had in mind: Dozens of migrant workers from places like the Philippines, Colombia and Nepal have come to this free legal clinic at the Tel Aviv office of Kav La'Oved. Besides dispensing legal advice, it also lobbies the government on the migrants' behalf.

Dan Ben David is a professor of public policy at Tel Aviv University. He says unlike other developed countries, Israel doesn't actually need these people.

Dan Ben David: We're not aging. We're young. We're very young. Not only that, but we have a very large share of our prime working age population who is uneducated.

Which to him, means Israelis should be doing the migrants' jobs: Taking care of the elderly, picking tomatoes, building houses. There are something like 200,000 foreign workers here. A lot of them are even legal. But Israel has no real immigration policy for non-Jews. And now, more than a decade after it started importing these workers, the government's trying to figure out what to do.

Gina Cayubi came to Israel almost two years ago. She says she cared for an elderly, bedridden woman 24 hours a day, seven days a week.

Gina Cayubi: There are nights she cannot sleep, she always call me, "Gina, I need water. Gina, I cannot sleep." So I really don't sleep at night, the whole night, good.

Workers like Cayubi are a bargain -- about 40 percent cheaper than Israelis. But it's all relative:

Cayubi: In the Philippines, I only get not even one-fourth of my salary here.

Some critics say the system exploits the workers. Among other things, there isn't a lot of oversight to make sure employers obey labor laws.

Cayubi came to the Kav La'Oved legal clinic to get advice, because her employer just died and the family refused to pay her. Her visa is tied to her job. So if she can't find another one, she's supposed to leave. But a lot of people don't; they just work illegally. The government wants that to stop: A new police unit tracks down undocumented migrants to deport them. But there's also talk of letting some people stay. A move some politicians say would threaten Israel's Jewish character. The problem is more economic than spiritual though.

Hanna Zohar is director of Kav La'Oved.

Hanna Zohar: Israelis depend on cheap labor below the minimum wage and the law. I think Israel become addicted to it.

That addiction may be hard to break.

I met Clara Avidan in a park in Tel Aviv. She was there with her Filipina caregiver. She says she only considered hiring a foreigner because no Israeli would work around the clock.

In Tel Aviv, I'm Alisa Roth for Marketplace.

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