I was there as an ornament, more or less. The lawyer told me that his client had not turned up for her deposition at the Labor Court and therefore there would be nothing to translate. Still, he said, I should come in and sit there. Who knows what excuse the defendant’s lawyer might use to get the whole case thrown out. The non-Hebrew-speaking plaintiff in these cases is required to appear with a translator.
So, what’s the story, I wanted to know. Not that it was hard to guess. The major plot lines of these stories are practically formulaic. When a migrant worker sues his former employers, what he wants is money – withheld earnings, severance pay, vacation pay, whatever. But the details are different in every case.
I remember a Ghanian man who told me that he worked for the same family for 12 years and then decided to take advantage of the Immigration Police’s offer to leave “voluntarily” and thus gain a few weeks time to settle his affairs. Most migrant workers in Israel are picked off the streets by the police, incarcerated and shipped home within 48 hours. The employers of the Ghanian man were very sorry to lose him and gave him as testimony of their appreciation – a bar of chocolate! He thought he was entitled to compensation for 12 years’ work. Sitting in the corridor with me, waiting for his case to be heard, this soft-spoken young man said to me, his voice almost choking with emotion: “I don’t understand you people. You are the People of the Book. You yourselves were strangers in Egypt. You should treat the strangers in your midst with more compassion.”
Well, compassion is one thing, and hard currency is another. Like most people, we are more attached to our checkbooks than to any book with a capital B. In the end, a compromise was reached between his lawyer – hired by a public service organization (Kav Laoved or Workers’ Hotline, a non-profit organization which offers legal aid to migrant workers) – and his employers’ lawyer. He had asked for less than a third of what was coming to him by law and was awarded about half of that.
But today’s case, as I learned from the lawyer, was about really big money. The woman, a Filipino caregiver, was suing for about $40,000. It sounds even better in Israeli shekels: NS 200,000.
“So, how come she didn’t show up?” I wanted to know.
The woman was in prison in Nazareth. The prison authorities had been served with a court order, ordering them to bring her to the Tel Aviv Labor Court by 2:00 p.m. on Wednesday. As of 1:30 she was still in Nazareth. The prison officials claimed that they had never received the order. Friday morning she was due to be deported.
“How can they do that?” was my naive inquiry. The lawyer laughed. It’s done all the time. The defendant or the defendant’s lawyer knows somebody who knows somebody who can throw a spanner in the works.
The rest of the facts of the case I picked up inside the judge’s chambers. The judge was a young woman, maybe in her early forties, who was openly miffed by the non-appearance of the plaintiff. She was angry at the prison officials, she was angry at the police, and was – almost aggressively – annoyed with the defense lawyer.
The lawyer for the defense asked if he could make a statement. The judge acquiesced and he began a rather involved litany of his complaints. First of all, he had received the order to appear in court only 24 hours earlier. He was a busy man. He was involved in a number of more serious cases. He hadn’t had a reasonable amount of time to go into the details of the case. He asked that the hearing be postponed to the following week. The judge refused. The woman would be deported on Friday and her right to make the deposition outweighed any inconvenience to the lawyer. His second tack was personal. He had just been in hospital for a bypass operation; he could not be expected to run around at the drop of a court order. The lawyer for the plaintiff asked why his office had not sent another lawyer from the firm. The defense lawyer informed him that the other names on his firm’s plaque were merely people who paid him rent for the use of office space.
The judge then reiterated her decision that the prison be served with an order to bring the woman in the following day at 2:00 p.m. Her office would be in touch with the prison from 8 in the morning to make sure that her orders were followed. The defense lawyer, looking sullen and leaning on the table for support, requested that the time be set for 3:00. The judge agreed and then turned to her computer to compose her interim judgment.
After about ten minutes she had completed the job and began reading it, half to herself, half to the clerk sitting next to her. At that point, the defense lawyer again asked to make a point. And it was at this juncture, in the comments and cross-comments between the two lawyers, that I learned the details of the case.
The plaintiff had been hired to look after an elderly woman. In Israel one can get a permit for a foreign caregiver if the person involved is helpless. Apparently the woman was not helpless but her son managed to get the permit anyhow. She worked for seven years at less than the minimum wage and had not been given a day off or vacations during the entire period. It was a great arrangement for the loving son! The day after the old women died the woman was fired. She turned to the Kav Laoved for legal help. She wanted severance pay and compensation for missed vacations.
But the son was not idle either. He immediately informed the immigration police that the Filipino woman no longer worked for him, making her automatically an illegal. “Unfortunately” he did not have her new address and so he placed an ad in the papers offering a reward of $1,500 to whoever would turn her in. She was soon turned in.
The defense lawyer pointed out that if they were now discussing the nitty-gritty of the case, $40,000 was an exaggerated figure. The woman had been eating his client’s food for seven years, completely free of charge. Furthermore, she had lived in his mother’s apartment and never paid a day’s rent. Finally, she had enjoyed a standard of living that she could never have dreamed of at home. As for vacations and the so-called weekly day of rest, that was nonsense: she never really worked all day and most certainly slept most of the night.
The judge didn’t like this angle at all. “There are laws governing those matters,” she pointed out to him, as if he didn’t know.
I sat there riveted by the performance of the defense lawyer. He spoke well, clutching his by-passed heart every so often, leaning on the table for a few minutes and then exerting himself to stand up straight. It was impressive. I would have given him a rave review if he were an actor on television. I was also impressed by the speed with which his client had informed the immigration police that the woman was no longer employed by them. She had not yet begun to travel the bureaucratic Via Dolorosa involved in renewing her work permit and finding another job. If she could be deported in a few days, she would be unable to make any kind of deposition. How nice for her employer!
The bottom line now was: tomorrow at 3:00. The judge began to collect her papers.
I smiled at the plaintiff’s lawyer as if to say: “Round I is yours,” and indicated that I should show up on the morrow as scheduled. But before I even managed to stand up, our star attorney-for-the-defense, in a scene from a Charles Laughton courtroom drama, called to the judge: “Your honor,” he said, or whatever the Hebrew equivalent, “I think I can reach a compromise with the plaintiff’s attorney.”
“Go ahead,” she said. “I’ll wait.” A compromise would simplify everything. The caregiver would get some money, the case would be closed, both lawyers would have something to show for their troubles, and the NPO would be partially satisfied. And, indeed, as I learned the next morning, the two reached a compromise in which the women would be paid 70,000 shekels, approximately $15,000.
I am sure that the Filipino caregiver was pleased. She was lucky. Most of her fellow migrant workers are deported with little more than the clothes on their back. But the big winner, as far as I could see, was her employer. The loving son had to put out less than half of what he owed. His savings were enormous: $25,000 – even if he had to peel off some bills for the lawyer. He had had home care for his mother for seven years, paid less than the minimum wage and didn’t have to worry that he would be bothered on Sundays or holidays.
The moral of the story, one which Israelis have learned with alacrity, is not “do unto others,” or any of the other golden rules enumerated in the Good Book. It is: greed pays and extreme greed pays extremely well.