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A bitter Shavuot harvest

Miserable work conditions for Israel's migrant farm workers cast a pall over the festival of 'first fruits'

During the early years of the State of Israel, the character of the Israeli farmer took centre stage as a catalyst in the creation of a blossoming Jewish State. As Shavuot approaches, Israelis are once again inundated with stories, images and articles of the early Israeli pioneer. Because of the fundamental role of the Hebrew worker in Israel, Shavuot, the traditional holiday marking the beginning of the agricultural cycle, has become as much a national holiday as a religious one. Although Israelis will head in droves to kibbutzim to participate in Shavuot activities that recall the golden age of Israeli agriculture, many are unaware of those who bear the brunt of the Israeli agricultural industry today.

Approximately 22,000 migrant workers are employed in the agricultural sector in Israel Today. The majority of these workers arrive from Thailand, and others come from Nepal and Vietnam or other South East Asian countries. The lack of a common language between workers and employers, the isolated location of Israeli farms, and the lack of support structures allowing workers to demand their rights put migrant agricultural workers in an extremely weak position.

Although the implementation of the bilateral agreement signed between Israel and Thailand in July 2012 helped alleviate some issues, poor treatment and exploitation of these workers still runs rampant today. One of the most blatant examples of such exploitation is the widespread disregard of minimum wage among employers of migrant agricultural workers. The agricultural sector has the highest percentage of minimum wage violations of any labour sector in Israel, with 33% of workers being paid below minimum wage.

Furthermore, employers in the agricultural sector often disregard the health of their workers. In effect, the migrant agricultural workers are often not provided with the necessary safety equipment or training for working with dangerous pesticides. The misuse of these powerful toxins can produce serious side effects such as asthma, rashes and other skin abrasions and might cause other unknown long term damage. Moreover, most of the workers are not aware of their right to go to a clinic or hospital. They are often worried about complaining for fear of being fired. They do not get paid for sick days and so tend to work rather than seek medical treatment despite their suffering.

The language barriers between the workers and their employers also cause numerous difficulties. Since the workers do not usually speak any Hebrew or English, their knowledge of their rights and employment terms are practically nonexistent. It is the responsibility of the governmental bodies such as the Ministry of Economy to provide translators in the case of potential labour related disputes. However, these inspections and meetings rarely happen with a translator present. The Kav LaOved workers’ hotline has also found that the Ministry of Economy is largely unresponsive to requests for inspections in general. In most cases it has taken two to three months for an inspector to respond to a complaint.

Workers are also consistently placed in horrific living conditions, commonly living in storage sheds or other makeshift structures. The Procedure for Employment of Migrant Workers in Agriculture and the Regulations of Proper Housing state that employers must provide migrant workers with a minimum standard of living conditions. Unfortunately, the complaints that Kav LaOved has lodged with the Immigration Authority demanding enforcement of these provisions are not efficiently dealt with. In one case, upon arrival in Israel from Thailand, a worker discovered that his accommodation was a shipping container with no ventilation, cooking utilities or bathroom/shower facilities. He also had to share the living space with three other workers. Last month, four years after his arrival, his employer was fined 200 000 NIS by the Tel Aviv Labour Court.

The Immigration Authority, who ensures visa compliance and maintenance of adequate housing for the migrant workers, has been known on occasion to remove agricultural workers from inadequate housing conditions and help them find new places of employment. However, when they do, they rarely impose sanctions on employers and do not revoke the employers’ licenses to hire new migrant workers.

Revocation of employment licenses is an extremely effective tool in the prevention of exploitation of migrant agricultural workers. If following any violation, the Immigration Authority and the Ministry of Economy submitted an indictment against the employer to the licensing unit of the Immigration Authority, employers would feel more pressure to respect the workers’ rights and the number of violations might be reduced.

At the root of each of these problems is the lack of enforcement by the regulating bodies. Although we can try and hold the employers or the migrant workers responsible, the fact remains that simple policy changes and increased enforcement regarding each of the above issues would significantly further the protection of migrant agricultural workers. As the festival of Shavuot approaches, it is important to remember that the workers picking our fruit deserve better treatment. The Ministry of Economy and Immigration Authority have a responsibility to ensure that the migrant agricultural workers receive the treatment they deserve and it is vital that they commit to this.

About the Author
Yolanda Simons is a volunteer at Kav LaOved – Workers' Hotline.
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