The deputy governor of the Bank of Israel, Prof. Zvi Eckstein, is in the process of formulating a comprehensive plan to drastically reduce the number of foreign workers in Israel. Eckstein, an economist and expert in labor market policy, relies on a model adopted by Australia and intended to curb the entry of millions of foreign workers from other countries in the region. Instead of bringing in a foreign and cheap labor force, Australia introduced agricultural mechanization. Eckstein thinks there is no reason for the Israeli government not to adopt a similar policy and subsidize farmers who bring mechanization into their fields and hothouses. Given the small number of landowners who make a living from agriculture, this is not an impossible task.
There have been previous attempts to subsidize Israeli agriculture workers, but such efforts were shot down by the farmers, who argued that Israelis are not prepared to work in agriculture and are not skilled in agricultural work. The farmers tend not to mention another key consideration: wages.
The Kav La'Oved hotline for the protection of workers' rights recently received a complaint from a woman from Nepal who was hired to do agricultural work for between eight and 13 hours a day for NIS 11 an hour, even though the legal wage is NIS 19.28 an hour. Investigations of such complaints have proven over and over again that the salaries of foreign workers - despite government attempts to increase them through various charges and fees - are still 30 percent lower than those of Israeli workers.
Bringing foreign laborers into Israel is also a profitable venture for the Israeli companies that receive thousands of dollars from these downtrodden workers, who are forced to get loans and mortgage their property to get the longed-for permit to do manual labor in Israel.
Simhon has been pressing for an increase in the number of foreign workers for a long time now. He, and others in the Labor Party, are subject to pressure by vote contractors who supplement their income from agriculture with their ownership of human-resources companies that import foreign workers.
Olmert - like his predecessors, including Ariel Sharon - is submitting to the pressure. The agriculture lobby is indeed one of the strongest lobbies in Israel, as it is in other countries, like France. Determination is required in order to stand against it. Instead of bringing in more and more workers, a serious plan must be developed to replace them with Israeli workers and sophisticated machinery. Israel must free itself once and for all from enslavement to a cheap labor force, with all its economic and ethical ramifications.