TEL AVIV — Perched 22 stories above an affluent suburb of this prosperous seaside city, three Chinese construction workers inched their way along the arm of a crane last autumn and refused to budge. Facing deportation because of expiring visas, theirs was an act of desperation aimed at getting thousands of dollars in wages they claimed their Israeli employer had illegally withheld.
The daredevil protest had the desired effect: After the men spent nine hours on the crane, the construction company agreed to pay each the equivalent of $1,000. Satisfied, they climbed down and voluntarily headed to the airport.
For Israelis, the crane standoff — the second in a matter of months — was an unwanted reminder of their country’s troubled economic experiment with foreign labor. Since the first intifada of the early 1990s, more than a million migrants from the developing world have come to Israel to replace the Palestinians, who were the country’s original source of cheap labor.
At least 250,000 foreign laborers, about half of them illegal, are living in the country, according to the Israeli government. They include Chinese construction workers, Filipino home health care aides and Thai farmhands, as well as other Asians, plus Africans and Eastern Europeans, working as maids, cooks and nannies.
"Israelis won’t do this work, so they bring us," said Wang Yingzhong, 40, a construction worker from Jiangsu province in China who arrived in 2006.
But even as foreign workers have become a mainstay of the economy, their presence has increasingly clashed with Israel’s Zionist ideology, causing growing political unease over the future of the Jewish state and their place in it.
The government has lurched through a series of contradictory policies that encourage the temporary employment of migrants while seeking to impose tight visa and labor restrictions that can leave them vulnerable to abusive employers, advocates for the workers say.
Those who overstay their visas and try to remain in Israel live in fear of the Oz Unit, a recently created division of immigration police officers who hunt down illegal migrants and assist in their deportation.
The government insists it wants unskilled jobs to go to unemployed Israelis, especially Arab citizens and ultra-Orthodox Jews. Critics say the policies are hypocritical and racist because they treat foreign workers as undeserving of legal protection.
"All too often we have to fight to make Israelis see that these foreign workers are human beings," said Dana Shaked, the coordinator for Chinese laborers at Kav LaOved, a workers’ rights group.
Although the Israeli government issued a record 120,000 foreign work permits in 2009, the country’s political leaders say they want to phase out migrant labor. "We have created a Jewish and democratic nation, and we cannot let it turn into a nation of foreign workers," Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu said at a conference of the Israel Manufacturers Association in January.
The No. 1 target is the Chinese, who in recent years have received nearly all of the construction work permits. Chinese accounted for a quarter of all deportations from 2003 to 2008, more than any other foreign group. The rate was expected to soar as 3,000 of those permits lapsed at the end of June.
The Chinese end up in the most desperate straits here partly because they are recruited through a murky network of manpower companies that rights groups say operate like human trafficking rings. Chinese pay up to $31,000 in illegal recruitment fees, the highest fees of all foreign workers, according to Kav LaOved, which says the money ends up in the pockets of go-betweens and government agencies in both countries.
The Chinese must work for an average of two years just to repay the money they borrow to afford those fees. Unaware of their rights and unable to speak Hebrew or English, many fall victim to a minefield of abuse like squalid living conditions, withheld wages and the early termination of work permits, which make them liable for deportation before they have repaid the recruitment fees or saved money for themselves.
Most Chinese endure the injustices more quietly than the workers who staged the dramatic crane protests last year. Some, like Liu Shiqi, 39, said he showed up to his job as a cook one March morning to find the restaurant closed and the owner gone without paying him.
"They know we’re alone and don’t speak Hebrew, so they take advantage of us," he said.
Worker advocates say the Chinese Embassy has long been indifferent or even hostile to the workers’ plight. When 170 construction workers went on strike in 2001 seeking back pay, embassy officials warned them that they would be imprisoned upon their return to China for breaching their contracts and breaking Chinese labor law. The men who protested on the crane did so after the embassy ignored their pleas, they told Kav LaOved.
Yang Jianchu, the Chinese consul for immigration affairs, says his staff does all it can to help those in trouble. He also dismissed accusations by worker advocates that the Chinese government profits from the exorbitant recruitment fees.
"We don’t know where the money goes," Yang said. "This is the truth."
Laborers who become illegal after losing their jobs or overstaying their visas say they are easily exploited by Israeli bosses.
One 40-year-old Chinese worker from Jiangsu Province said he earned about $14,000 a year working 12-hour days. Fears of being arrested by the immigration police, he said, consume him. "When I sleep, they catch me in my dreams," said the man, surnamed Jiang, who asked that his full name not be printed.
The government has quietly begun to replace Chinese with other non-Israelis, issuing 15,000 construction permits to Palestinians this year. This comes as right-wing politicians have heightened accusations that foreign workers are stealing Israeli jobs and threatening the nation’s Jewish character, an assertion many on the left dismiss.
"Saying foreign workers are diluting the Jewish state is racism," said Nitzan Horowitz, a member of the Israeli Parliament and a critic of the foreign-worker policy. "On one hand, Israel is bringing them here and making money off their backs, and on other, they face all sorts of harassment."
Even if the law is changed, it will be too late for people like Lin Qingde, a Chinese construction worker who is one of 26 plaintiffs to sue an Israeli-Arab merchant accused of stealing $1.7 million from hundreds of workers, money that he was supposed to wire to their families in China. The police arrested the businessman, but, while waiting to testify at the trial, Lin’s work visa expired and he also was arrested.
Stuck behind bars for five months and afraid he might be killed in China for failing to repay a $40,000 debt, Lin was finally called into court in May to give his account. A few days later, he was deported.
Hay Haber, the lawyer for Lin and the other plaintiffs, said he was ashamed of Israel’s justice system. "These workers, unfortunately, have no place in Israel," Haber said, surrounded by stacks of evidence files in his Tel Aviv office. "Here they are nothing but cheap slaves."