April 15, 2006

Once we were slaves but now?

This is a passover tale, by Ruth Sinai, from yesterday's Ha'aretz. Sorry, I say tale, it's actually a true story of slavery in "modern" Israel.
In June 2002, M.R., an incapacitated Israeli man from Migdal Haemek, traveled to the city of Kolomyya, in Ukraine. There he met a widow of 45 and offered her a job working for him in Israel. She accepted, he sent her a plane ticket and she arrived in the country. Her work was to look after him and his mother − he uses a wheelchair, she is elderly − including bathing them and changing diapers. She also had to clean the house, do the laundry and cook.

"When I started the job, M.R. told me that I had to work a year without pay to repay the many expenses he had in bringing me to Israel," the women said in a statement that she made on April 2 to attorney Anat Gonen from Kav La'oved, the Workers Hotline for the Protection of Worker's Rights. Thus, during her first year of employment, she received no salary, apart from NIS 100-200 that the handicapped man's mother gave her occasionally. "In addition, I was allowed to go out twice a week for a few hours in order to work at cleaning, and the money I earned [from that work] I sent to my family in Ukraine."

At the end of the year, the woman asked M.R. to start paying her. However, he told her he was in the midst of a lawsuit against his insurance company and that after he won, he would receive a great deal of money and would pay her retroactively. "Because he made it clear to me that if I stopped working for him I would have to go back to Ukraine, I agreed, having no choice but to go on working without getting a salary," she explained in her statement.
So much for the individual case.
Now look at the general problem.According to a study by the American Civil Liberties Union in Berkeley, California, trafficking for purposes of slavery in households is in second place in terms of the number of people involved, after trafficking for prostitution. After identifying the problem several years ago, the United States enacted legislation to combat it. Until 2004, indictments were handed down against 77 people for coercive employment or commerce in human beings. Convictions were obtained in most of the cases. In 2002, for example, a California court sentenced the common-law wife of the Thai ambassador to Sweden to eight years in prison for having brought with her to the United States a household worker, whose passport she confiscated, then forcing her to work 20 hours a day, six days a week.

However, as befits the world's sheriff, the United States has taken the matter beyond the domestic sphere. In an attempt to eradicate the phenomenon throughout the world, the State Department publishes an annual report that ranks the efforts made by the world's countries to combat human trafficking. Since 2003 the report has referred not only to trafficking for prostitution, but also for bondage. To meet the minimal standards set by the United States for this report, a country must investigate, bring to justice and convict such traffickers and also take preventive measures against the phenomenon, including public education.

Not doing enough
Israel, the United States maintains, is not doing enough to combat the phenomenon. After being at the lowest level for one year − i.e., being listed as one of the countries that is not doing anything at all to eradicate human trafficking − Israel has, since 2002, been upgraded to the Tier 2 level of countries that are taking action against it, but not enough. Last year, the report added a "watch list," referring to countries that are about to be downgraded. In September 2005, Gershuni met with representatives of the State Department ahead of the publication of the annual "Trafficking in Persons Report" available at www.state.gov/g/tip/rls/tiprpt/2005/
It's a long article and it ought to be read in full as there are parliamentarians on the case to protect Israel from the disapprobation and sanctions it deserves. Which just goes to show that Israel is susceptible to pressure.

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