The Working Caste

Tel Aviv's city bus number four runs down Allenby Street through the heart of
secular Israel's glittering urban showcase. Just visible in one direction is the
crowded Mediterranean coast, dotted with international hotels and frolicking
sunbathers. A few blocks in the other direction are the cafés and
boutiques of Dizengoff Street. As the bus pulls southward and heads farther
inland, the scene out the window becomes seedier and, in a country not known for
its clean streets, even dirtier. Trendy shops are replaced by open-fronted stores
displaying luggage and trinkets, carts piled with vegetables and candied nuts,
and placards advertising peep shows. This is South Tel Aviv, an area populated by
members of Israel's large and growing community of foreign workers.

At the end of a workday, Romanian men still dusty from the job gather on
benches to drink bottled beer. African men sit in threes and fours on folding
chairs outside international calling centers that advertise rates to Kenya,
Ecuador, Moldova, and Ukraine. A few older Filipino women rest on crates,
displaying bunches of vegetables before them on blankets. The only Israeli in
view is a man in a knitted kippah selling adult videos and assorted
electronic goods.

According to the Israeli Central Bureau of Statistics, there are approximately
125,000 non-Palestinian foreign workers in the country today--roughly 50,000 of
them undocumented. Israeli businesses recruit workers from all over the world:
Thais for field work, Romanians for construction jobs, Filipino women as nannies
and home health care providers. Illegal workers arrive from Nigeria, Ghana,
Colombia, Chile, Peru, and the former Soviet Union.

The presence of foreign workers is a relatively new phenomenon in Israel, a
society that prides itself on being a haven for Jewish immigrants--and Israel is
not alone. From Japan to Germany to Singapore, migration for employment is a
growing trend. The category of "migrant worker"--as distinguished from
"immigrant" on the one hand and "refugee" on the other--is somewhat hazy, so no
one knows exactly how many of these workers there are worldwide. The
International Labour Organization (ILO) pegs the total at around 42 million:
Indian computer programmers in Silicon Valley, Pakistani laborers in Saudi
Arabian oil fields, and Filipino maids cleaning fashionable apartments in Tel
Aviv, among many others.

The International Confederation of Free Trade Unions (ICFTU) warns that the
number of migrant workers will only increase over the next 20 years, as whole
groups of people in the developing world are displaced by civil conflict and
environmental degradation. Migrant labor probably will increase, but migrants may
not be pushed from poor nations so much as pulled by rich ones. The populations
of most countries in the industrialized world (the United States being one
notable exception) are projected both to shrink and to age dramatically in the
next generation. Importing foreign workers, a process dubbed "replacement
migration" in a recent United Nations report, may be the only way for developed
countries to sustain economic prosperity without drastically scaling back

But industrialized countries will need to balance their appetite for foreign
labor against their reluctance to open their doors to outsiders. Even at current
levels of migration, foreign workers are the favorite scapegoat for economic
strain--more than a million were deported from Malaysia and South Korea after the
1998 Asian financial crisis--and their increasing visibility will only enhance
their vulnerability.

Blood Citizenship

Nowhere, perhaps, has the political impact of migrant labor been more acute
than in Germany, which is currently home to 7.3 million foreigners. Many of these
foreign residents are the children or grandchildren of Turkish, Italian, and
Yugoslavian Gastarbeiters ("guest workers") recruited by the government in
the 1950s and 1960s. Because the recruitment program's inception in 1955
coincided with postwar economic expansion, the government was slow to enforce
rotation requirements and other measures designed to restrict permanent
settlement. According to Douglas Klusmeyer, an associate at the Carnegie
Endowment's program on international migration, policy makers were focused on the
short-term economic benefits of a stable workforce, which, unlike a rotating
system, does not require the constant training of new recruits.

By 1973, when the oil crisis and ensuing recession led to a freeze on new
recruits, the number of guest workers had grown to 2.7 million. Over the next few
years, the government offered financial rewards to workers who agreed to return
home, but few accepted. The bargain was too little, too late; despite the
moratorium on new guest workers, there were more foreigners living in Germany in
1983 than in 1973.

Germany has historically defined citizenship solely according to bloodlines or
heritage instead of birthplace; the citizenship law of 1913 (which was
reinstated after World War II, but has since been revised) provides automatic
German citizenship only to children with a German father. U.S. citizenship law,
by contrast, is a mixed system based on parentage and birthplace. Both the child
born to an illegal Mexican migrant in El Paso and the child born to a U.S.
citizen in Mexico City are automatically citizens of the United States.

Like Germany, Israel operates under a strict system of jus sanguinis,
or citizenship by blood. Israeli immigration policy, codified in the 1950 Law of
Return, is explicitly targeted at the "return" of the world Jewish community to
its ancestral land. As Ze'ev Rosenhek, a professor of sociology at the Hebrew
University of Jerusalem, puts it: "Israel is not an immigration country; it is an
aliyah country. Non-Jewish immigrants are not considered prospective
members of society." Aliyah, which literally means "ascending," denotes
purely Jewish immigration to Israel.

A similar right of return affirmed in Germany's federal constitution allows
ethnic Germans whose families settled in Russia and other parts of Eastern
Europe in the eighteenth century to return with full citizenship. The number of
ethnic German Aussiedlers ("resettlers") arriving from Eastern Europe each
year is not insignificant; while it has fallen from its peak of 397,000 in 1990,
it remains at roughly 100,000 a year.

Before 1990, second- and third-generation foreigners, most of whom had attended
German schools and could speak the language fluently, were denied the opportunity
to naturalize as German citizens. Children whose parents, or even grandparents,
were of foreign origin inherited their family's "foreignness." By the early
1990s, 100,000 such native foreigners were being born every year and, if the
government had not acted, could have lived in Germany for many more generations
as technical outsiders. The first citizenship reforms, authorized by
then–Chancellor Helmut Kohl, were modest; they extended the option of
naturalization to foreign workers who had been living in Germany for at least 15

In 1999 Chancellor Gerhard Schröder proposed a far more sweeping revision of the
citizenship regime: reducing the residency minimum from 15 years to eight and
permitting newly naturalized Germans to hold dual citizenship. Pressed by the
center-right Christian Democratic Union (CDU)--which, in an unprecedented
operation, collected nearly five million signatures on a "yes to integration, no
to dual nationality" petition--Schröder's Red-Green government was forced to
jettison some of the more progressive elements of the proposal. The final
legislation abandoned the prospect of dual citizenship: Foreigners who wish to
become German citizens must relinquish their original citizenship, but children
of foreign-born parents may hold dual citizenship until the age of 23, at which
time they must choose between the two.

For all its restrictions, Germany is downright welcoming compared to Japan, a
country known for being particularly insular and intolerant of foreigners. The
native-foreigner problem there--most of Japan's 630,000 noncitizen permanent
residents are descended from Korean workers who have lived in the country since
World War II or before--has not been addressed. A measure that would give
permanent residents the right to vote in Japanese elections is pending in the
Diet, the nation's parliament. But despite small reforms, Japanese politicians
and their constituents are wary of what they see as an increasing foreign
presence. Tokyo's Governor Shintaro Ishihara caused a minor international scandal
when he publicly accused "sangokujin and other foreigners" of committing
"atrocious crimes." (Sangokujin is a derogatory term that literally means
"people from third countries" and usually refers to Koreans or Taiwanese.)

International Solutions

Migration is by definition a global issue, but the movement of people is, for
the most part, regulated at the national level. There are a few exceptions. The
European Union allows citizens of its member states to move and settle freely
throughout the union (though it does not yet have a coherent policy on welcoming
immigrants from outside the union). But when Mexico's new president, Vicente Fox,
recently suggested an expansion of the North American Free Trade Agreement to
include the free movement of people, not just goods, his northern
neighbors in the United States and Canada laughed uncomfortably and then politely
ignored him.

With regional organizations turning a blind eye to the problem, the task of
protecting migrant workers has been left to the (relatively weak) instruments of
the United Nations and the International Labour Organization. The ILO's Migration
for Employment Convention, drafted in 1949, is sorely outmoded. In a recent
e-mail, Gloria Moreno Fontes Chammartin, an ILO official in Geneva, wrote that
while "the principles enshrined in these instruments are still valid today," many
of the specific provisions need to be updated. "The ILO instruments were drafted
with state-organized migration in mind," she said, and they have little to say
about "clandestine migration and undocumented employment," which have become much
larger problems.

While the ILO is in the process of rethinking its convention, the United Nations
is moving--very, very slowly--toward the enactment of the International
Convention on the Protection of the Rights of All Migrant Workers and Members of
Their Families, which was adopted by the General Assembly in 1990. The text of
the convention is little more than a reiteration of two covenants included in
what is known in diplomatic parlance as the International Bill of Human Rights:
the International Covenants on Civil and Political Rights and on Economic, Social
and Cultural Rights. Migrant workers, along with women, racial and ethnic
minorities, and children, need their own convention, the thinking goes, because
in practice they are often not afforded the rights promised them by more
universal human rights language.

As part of international law, the convention would establish minimum standards
for the protection of migrant workers, regardless of their legal status,
including freedom from slavery or forced labor and from arbitrary arrest and
detention. States could be held accountable for their mistreatment of
undocumented workers at border crossings and police stations; under the current
system, such mistreatment is considered an internal matter. (Unless a large
number of their countrymen work abroad, as with Koreans in Japan and Indians in
the Gulf states, sending countries are slow to protest abuses.) The convention
would go even further in extending rights to documented migrants--most notably,
the right to "equality of treatment" with nationals in access to education,
housing, and a variety of workplace protections.

It is hard to consider the migrant workers' convention (MWC) a "major human
rights instrument," as it was hailed at the 1993 World Conference on Human
Rights: More than 10 years after its drafting, it has yet to go into effect. A UN
convention can enter into force only after 20 countries have ratified it. The
MWC, which has 16 ratifications and 10 signatures (a signature is the first step
toward ratification), is in diplomatic limbo. Patrick Taran, who coordinates the
global campaign for ratification of the MWC, is hopeful that the convention will
come into force within the next few months. The easiest short-term solution, he
says, would be to lean on the 10 signatory countries to ratify the convention as
quickly as possible.

But the campaign, a consortium of 15 nongovernmental organizations (including
Migrants Rights International, of which Taran is director), does not have the
resources to carry out such a coordinated effort. The process has been held back
by understaffing, caused in turn by underfinancing. As Taran wrote in the
European Journal of Migration and Law last summer, "There is not one
person anywhere in the world, in any international organization, in any
government, or any civil society group engaged with full-time responsibilities
related to promoting this convention. There is simply no one yet taking up on a
full-time basis the huge tasks of information distribution, coordination,
advocacy, etc., that promoting adoption of a major international treaty

If the convention were to come into effect in a few months, or even a few years,
a huge problem would still remain: All of the countries that have signed on are
developing nations that, on balance, send their citizens to work abroad. Egypt,
Mexico, and the Philippines have all ratified the treaty; Turkey, Guatemala, and
Bangladesh are at the signature phase. To date, none of the industrialized
countries--countries that are largely responsible for the mistreatment of
migrants--has so much as expressed interest in the treaty.

This divide between developed and developing countries was obvious last year at a
meeting on the topic of Rights of Migrant Workers, Minorities, Displaced Persons,
and Other Vulnerable Groups" that was held by the United Nations commissioner for
human rights. Representatives from developing countries like Senegal, El
Salvador, Morocco, and Venezuela spoke about the need for international standards
to address the plight of migrant workers. The United States and European
countries talked instead about minorities and "other vulnerable groups" like gays
and lesbians and people with mental disabilities, ignoring the topic of migrant
workers completely. Belgium brought up the not wholly related topic of child
pornography. The only direct response came from Singapore, whose representative,
Margaret Liang, asserted that migrants ought not to have guarantees of equal
treatment because "the labor market should be allowed to find its own

Activists are not surprised that industrialized countries, many of whom are
dependent on migrant labor in their agricultural or service sectors, are not
interested in backing an international treaty for migrants' rights. Patrick Taran
likes to say that "Chile under Pinochet and Iran under the shah did not rush to
sign the treaty on torture." Shirley Hune, who sat in on the convention's
drafting process for the Quaker United Nations Office, remembers the U.S.
representative insisting that the treaty had little to do with the American
immigration experience. But the convention states that any migrant-- documented
or undocumented--who is engaged in "remunerated activity," or any member of such
a migrant's family, is entitled to certain fundamental human rights. This would
include the seasonal farm workers, more than one million of them, who cross the
U.S.-Mexican border to pick tobacco and lettuce and apples, as well as the
undocumented migrants who work in restaurants and factories in U.S. cities.

Wanted but Not Welcome

Whether or not the industrialized countries choose to ratify the MWC, they
will be forced to reconsider their policies on migrant labor over the next few
years as they find their social insurance running up against the strain of an
aging population. According to a UN report on replacement migration released last
year, the demographic situation is so dire that in order to offset the aging
population, the necessary level of new immigration will need to be "extremely
large, and in all cases entail vastly more immigration than occurred in the
past." Consider the case of Japan, whose population is projected to decline by 17
percent by 2050, from 127 million to 105 million, at the same time that the
percentage of the population over 65 is expected to nearly double from 17 percent
to 32 percent. In order to maintain the current balance between workers and
retirees, Japan would have to open its doors to an unprecedented 10 million
migrants a year over the next 50 years. Just to keep the size of the labor force
at the 1995 level would require 600,000 new migrants a year. And similarly
radical levels of immigration would be necessary to safeguard retirement
benefits throughout Europe.

Changing deep-rooted attitudes toward immigration, though, is easier said than
done. Throughout the industrialized world, public reaction to the presence of
foreign workers has been anything but welcoming. Switzerland, which has the
largest percentage of foreigners of any European country--in part because of its
restrictive citizenship policies--held a referendum in September on a proposal
to cap the number of foreigners at 18 percent of the population. The proposal
lost 64 percent to 36 percent. If it had been adopted, it would have been
summarily deported.

The climate in Switzerland is not much more extreme than in the European Union.
While member states have successfully harmonized their policies toward movement
within the union, they are finding it much more difficult to agree on a common
set of immigration laws. Douglas Klusmeyer of the Carnegie Endowment notes that
efforts to establish a set of European Union--wide guidelines on the acceptance
of what are known as third-country nationals--most recently at a conference in
Tampere, Finland--have been "focused on the prevention of asylum seekers and
illegal immigration, and the crime associated with those groups. It is striking
that there was so little said in Tampere about the positive contributions of
immigrants to European societies since World War II and next to nothing about the
demographic problems."

In Israel some conservative politicians have seized on the problem of foreign
workers as one that threatens everything from jobs to the solvency of the welfare
system to the Jewish character of the state. In December of last year, Zevulun
Orlev, a member of Israel's parliament, the Knesset, for the mainstream National
Religious Party, called for the deportation of all undocumented foreign workers.
His words could have been taken from the debate five years earlier in California
over Proposition 187, the controversial ballot initiative to deny state social
services to illegal immigrants. Orlev told The Jerusalem Post that
"the children of foreign workers demand resources which should be given to
Israeli children. I am not in favor of punishing a child because of the sins of
his parents, but I cannot understand why we do not ... expel them from the

The irony, of course, is that many of the very workers accused of overrunning the
country were recruited by local businesses. Until the early 1990s, Israeli
businesses were dependent on Palestinian day laborers to work in their fields and
build block after block of concrete apartment buildings. That changed in 1993
when a series of bus bombings encouraged the Israeli government to close the
border with the territories and impose curfews, sometimes for weeks at a time.
Because Palestinians were no longer a reliable source of labor, Israeli
businesses quietly lobbied the labor and agriculture ministries for permission to
recruit workers from abroad. The policy and its possible implications were never
debated in the Knesset.

Aristide Zolberg, director of the International Center for Migration, Ethnicity
and Citizenship and a professor of politics at the New School University, calls
this discrepancy between business interest and nationalist sentiment the "wanted
but not welcome paradox." As he explains in Citizenship and Exclusion,
"The very qualities that make a group suitable for recruitment as ålabor'
demonstrate its lack of qualifications for åmembership.'" But foreign
workers are not merely labor; they are also human beings who put down roots and
start families in their host country. Efforts to prevent temporary workers from
settling more permanently--limiting slots to single men and women, rotating
recruitment, and restricting options in employment (often to a single
employer)--have failed, almost without exception.

Even if a country were able to monitor its legal foreign workforce closely,
there still would be the matter of illegal entrants. In Israel undocumented
workers, who are not bound by set visa time limits, are even more likely than
their legal counterparts to stay in the country for long stretches of time.
"Wages are low in their home country. They cannot make a living," notes
sociology professor Ze'ev Rosenhek, who--along with Erik Cohen, also of the
Hebrew University--is conducting the first academic study of Israeli
migrant-worker communities. "Some have already stayed for 10 years; they have
families and kids here. They've established a ånormal life.' Kids play in
the streets. Families walk to church on Sunday."

While illegal migrants do live with the fear of being deported--the Israeli
government deported 5,200 illegal workers in 1999, up from 950 in 1995--they
often have more freedom than legally recruited migrants in their choice of work.
Illegal migrants can work for any company willing to hire labor under the table,
while legal workers are often restricted on official work permits to a single
employer. This structure worries Dana Alexander, an attorney with the Association
for Civil Rights in Israel, who calls legal foreign workers "one of the most
vulnerable groups in Israeli society." Because workers are bound to a single
employer, they "have no bargaining power," Alexander says. "They cannot stand up
to their employers for abuses like illegal deductions, withholding pay, or
receiving less than minimum wage," for fear of deportation. (This process is not
unlike the H1-B visa program in the United States, which is used to recruit
skilled foreign labor. An H1-B visa authorizes computer programmers and techies
to work for a particular employer; workers can be deported if they quit or get
fired. [See Alexander Nguyen, "High-Tech Migrant Labor," TAP, December
20, 1999.])

A better solution, argues Dana Alexander, would be to issue a work permit for a
certain area of employment--say, agriculture or construction--for a given period
of time. With work authorization separated from employment at a specific
company, foreign workers could join the open labor market, and employers would be
forced to treat their workers fairly or risk losing them entirely. Decoupling
work permits from specific jobs would also eliminate the most egregious abuses of
human rights, such as the confiscation of a worker's passport or the withholding
of pay until the end of a worker's stay--both common strategies that companies
use to retain control over "their" corps of foreign workers.

This is exactly the kind of reform that would be encouraged by the UN convention
on migrant workers. It remains to be seen, though, if countries like Israel,
Germany, and the United States will comply with the convention's guidelines, or
if they will, in the words of Singapore's Margaret Liang, allow the labor market
to "find its own equilibrium," exploitation and all.