Impoverished Turkish labourer Sahin Yilmaz arrived in Israel four months ago dreaming of helping his father pay off his mounting debts.
But today the 23-year-old faces a US $14,000 debt of his own, deportation and the possible loss of his family home in Turkey after challenging his employer over non-payment of wages and shocking working conditions.
"I never wanted money for myself, I just wanted to pay off my father’s huge debts. We were told by Yilmazlar [a Turkish manpower agency that supplies construction workers to a number of companies in Israel] that we could make up to $1,400 a month and more with overtime if we worked in Israel," he told IRIN.
"Yilmazlar assured us we would be well treated and be housed in good accommodation. However, when I arrived, my dream turned into a nightmare."
Yilmaz was sharing a room with eight others - furnished with bunk beds - that was so small that there was no space for their suitcases. They were fed a monotonous diet of rice and lentils and there were only three toilets with no running water for 130 workers.
"The conditions of the toilets were so disgusting, they were not fit even for an animal," said Yilmaz.
"We were forbidden from using mobile phones on pain of confiscation and fines and were forced to work an average of 11 hours a day, without being paid overtime. And in our half-hour lunch break we were expected to go home, eat and return to the construction site.
"In addition to our passports being taken away [by the employer], we needed special permission to leave the premises after work and on our day off. If people left without permission, they were fined and threatened with deportation by the management."
The final straw came when Yilmaz found out that he and the other workers would only receive their first payment after three months. He and a friend, 41-year-old father-of-three Hikmet Tekin, decided to challenge their boss.
"We were told by the management that if we didn't like it, we would be deported without payment and barred from employment elsewhere in Israel,"
Strict visa regulations
As he began his battle against his employer, Yilmaz became aware of the strict Israeli visa regulations governing conditions for migrant workers.
"The issuance of these visas is subject to the workers staying with the same employer stated on the visa and if this condition is broken then the migrant worker is deemed illegal and liable for deportation,” said Sigal Rosen, spokeswoman for Israeli human rights organisation Hotline for Migrant Workers.
The Hotline has received more than 20 requests for help from Turkish workers placed by Yizmazlar over the past few years.
"Many employers take advantage of the visa conditions by withholding wages from uninformed workers and then firing the employees when they owe them significant amounts of money," Rosen said.
"Often the employer will then inform police that the workers he has just fired are now illegal aliens. The police then arrest and deport them before they can challenge the employer in court,” said Rosen.
About 200,000 migrant workers live in Israel, mostly from Turkey, the Philippines and Eastern Europe. Half of them are deemed illegal, with about 5,000 getting deported annually on average, according to Rosen.
In March this year, an Israeli Supreme Court judge described the conditions of migrant workers in Israel as a "form of modern slavery" following a petition from human rights organisations.
The court further ordered the State to adopt a new employment scheme within the next six months allowing workers to resign without losing their legal status.
"Although it is difficult for migrant workers to change employers if they find the conditions too terrible, they can ask the manpower agency to find them new employment after three months,” Sabine Haddad, a spokeswoman for the Israeli Interior Ministry, said.
But in reality this does not happen. In general, manpower agencies are reluctant to help migrant workers find new employment as there is no further financial incentive for them once the workers have already been placed, said Rosen.
Furthermore, this provision is not available to workers placed by Yizmazlar who are not entitled to seek employment elsewhere.
In huge debt
Meanwhile, as Yilmaz awaits the Supreme Court's decision on 13 December, following a successful stay of deportation filed by his lawyer, he has found out that he cannot possibly pay off his father's debts.
Before leaving Turkey, he and other Turkish workers were obliged to sign blank promissory notes and a labour contract by Yilmazlar, which they said they were not allowed to read or keep a copy of.
"When the company found out I was leaving, they filled in one of the blank promissory notes that I had signed before coming to Israel," he said.
"They stated I owed the company $14,000 and that they would repossess my family's home if I did not pay up. The Turkish Embassy couldn’t help me because my signature was on the notes.”
He said that he was warned by the company manager that if he returned to Turkey quietly he would be forgiven but if he made any trouble, he would disappear.
Yilmazlar’s lawyer, Tal Benenson, told IRIN that he had affidavits signed by Yilmaz and Tekin before a Turkish-speaking notary in Israel, admitting that they were only using Yilmazlar to get into Israel and had no intention of staying with the company once in the country.
“They have told a pack of lies which they planned beforehand in Turkey with the help of Turkish workers already in Israel and the aim of these lies is to try and justify their fraudulent behaviour.
“Our client has laid out a huge sum financially for air tickets and medicals and is now suing Sahin and Tekin for 200,000 Shekels [about US $46,450] to retrieve these expenses,” he said.
This article was produced by IRIN News while it was part of the United Nations Office for the Coordination of Humanitarian Affairs. Please send queries on copyright or liability to the UN. For more information: https://shop.un.org/rights-permissions