The Minister of Justice published a new law memorandum that would end government-funded legal aid to “infiltrators.” There is only one problem: It has been over a decade since the government last funded aid. But hey, if you can take another opportunity to portray foreigners as exploiters and extortionists, why not?
Over a decade has passed since the Legal Aid Department in the Ministry of Justice has represented people who are not citizens or residents. For the past decade, they have refused to assist guest workers suing abusive employers, migrant mothers suing for child support, non-citizen tenants suing exploitative landlords, employees injured in workplace incidents suing for Social Security rights, victims of crime suing their attackers, and migrants who are stuck in debt.
So, who do they represent? A very small number of people. Victims of slavery and human trafficking but only because they’re required to; unaccompanied minors under arrest but only because the court orders them to; and citizens of countries that have signed a pact requiring the provision of legal aid, countries that very few of the guest workers in Israel come from. Everyone else is left without aid. None whatsoever.
Why? In 2010, the State Comptroller reported that the Legal Aid department believed that they were required to assist every person, regardless of citizenship or residency status, who qualified for aid according to the economic and legal criteria. Conversely, Attorney Yochai Gensin, the state representative in many migrant lawsuits, thought legal aid was for citizens and residents only. This debate was brought to the Director of the Justice Ministry and later to the Attorney General. The issue is still contested, and in the meantime the Legal Aid department refuses aid. Even the State Comptroller’s report was of no avail.
Human rights organizations have sued in the High Court of Justice and requested that the Legal Aid department represent guest workers in Israel on all relevant matters to the department. The Ministry of Justice responded that even though there is a basis for such a lawsuit according to the language of the law, it promised to fix the ambiguity in the law and establish explicitly that aid is for only citizens and residents, except in extenuating circumstances. This was months ago, and the debate is scheduled for next week. Nothing has happened between the announcement and now, however. As of today, a week before the debate, Justice Minister Ayelet Shaked has announced that a law memorandum will be published.
The primary victims of such a legislation, if it is passed, are the guest workers that Israel invites to work in various fields including: nursing, agriculture, building, industry and the service industry. This is the main group of people who currently do not receive assistance, and will not receive assistance if this legislation is passed.
Except these are not the people mentioned in the public debate. The memorandum has yet to be published. Yet Minister Shaked has hastened to the media with the headline that she will prevent legal aid from being granted to the “infiltrators.” “Israel is not required to give legal aid to these infiltrators,” she said. “On the one hand, the state talks about the need for evicting these illegal infiltrators from Israel, and w grants them benefits that go well beyond basic human rights, like legal aid at the expense of the country, on the other hand. Over the past few years, these infiltrators have taken advantage of a loophole in the Legal Aid Law and overloaded the system with requests for legal aid. This saga stops now.”
But this saga never happened. Nothing is given - neither right nor benefit - because since 2006 no aid has been given. But if there is an opportunity to incite against African asylum seekers and to say that in addition to all the other evils that are attributed to them, they also take advantage of and exploit the country, then why not?
From Shaked’s perspective, this is a win-win situation. She simultaneously lied about the “infiltrators” and threw guest workers under the bus. This is not the first time that she has joined forces with oppressive employers. At the request of Israeli farmers in the Jordan Valley, who were sued by their Palestinian employees and were forced to pay them, Minister Shaked created a new regulation requiring any non-Israeli worker who sues an employer in labor court to deposit a guarantee, at the request of their employer, that covers the employer’s legal fees, to be used in the case that the employee loses.
This regulation was created solely to entrench imbalanced power dynamics; there has not been one incident in which it has been entirely impossible for an employer who won in court to collect fees for their legal expenses from the employee who lost the case. Abusive employers of non-Israeli workers will certainly find a way to thank Shaked for the legislation she is pushing today as well.
Oded Feller is the Director of ACRI’s Legal Department.
Published on Yediot Aharonot on 8.5.2018