The Israeli government has come under fire for allowing the abuse of 25,000 Thai migrant workers, who make up almost the entire agricultural workforce.
According to a recent report by Human Rights Watch (HRW), reforms to the system agreed on in 2011 that sought to protect the rights of migrant workers have yet to be enforced by the Israeli government.
“The continuing abuses against Thai agricultural workers documented in this report are a disturbing signal of the state’s failure to enforce its own laws, which among other things provide for a minimum wage, specify maximum working hours, allow for lawful strike actions and unionization, and outline specific details on worker accommodation.”
In ore to compile the report, HRW interviewed over 170 Thai workers in 10 farming communities across Israel. The report concludes that the inspection of employers was patchy, the enforcement units were poorly equipped, and that employers rarely faced meaningful sanctions if they were caught breaking the law.
As a result, workers often remained in the fields up to 17 hours per day without a break. Lack of protection equipment provided by employers for the use of pesticides has led to medical complications in workers such as persistent headaches, breathing problems and burning eyes. Many migrants are unable to afford medicine or medical cover, and so must rely on medical supplies sent by their families in Thailand.
The report describes how Thai migrant workers on one farm were forced to live in a cardboard structure, while others lived in warehouses and sheds with improvised kitchen and bath facilities. One man described his physical and mental condition: “I feel like dead meat.” The ultimate price migrant workers pay for such squalid conditions is death – HRW indicated that during a five year period, 122 Thai workers lost their lives owing to these poor working conditions. This figure includes 43 workers who died from “sudden nocturnal death syndrome”, an affliction that affects young and healthy Asian men, five from suicide, and 22 for unknown reasons.
This news stands in stark contrast to positive developments in another rural enforcement issue – animal theft. In comparison to the previous year, 2014 showed a 39 per cent drop in the number of cattle and sheep stolen. Agricultural equipment theft was down 10 per cent.
According to the Jerusalem Post, in 2014 the Israeli Border Police opened the first police station of its kind – made up entirely of policemen focusing on the rural sector. These border police, who are largely responsible for agricultural policing, cooperate with the Israel Nature and Parks Authority, local water and electricity companies, and Israel’s largest “green” NGO – Keren Kayemeth.
“We implemented a comprehensive reform dealing with this crime [cattle theft], while investing all the resources at our disposal and increasing the presence of patrols within the communities themselves,” a senior Border Police official told the newspaper, while the Israeli Public Security Ministry has also announced increased funding to prevent agricultural theft.
All of which begs the question – does the Israeli government value cattle more than Thai migrant workers? It would seem so.
In war time, workers suffer more. Last summer, it was unclear whether the Ministry of Defence would provide compensation for bomb shelters built for foreign workers, so few farmers chose to build any. The Israel Defence Force refused to extend Iron Dome protection over fields worked by Thai migrants. On 23 July 2014, a Thai migrant worker died when hit by a mortar strike. He had only recently arrived in Israel.
The legal regimen protecting migrant workers – only recently introduced and barely enforced – has parallels with the abuses suffered by migrant workers in the Gulf. Abuse there is far worse, affecting tens of millions and compounded by a stricter visa scheme in which most workers are prevented from challenging or changing employers.
But while the effects on ordinary workers of the “kafala” system in the Gulf (which requires all unskilled labourers to have an in-country sponsor, i.e. an Emirati national) may be worse than the employment regime perpetuated in Israel, both are equally immoral. And both have the same underlying cause – identity politics, tinged with racism.
In the Gulf, It is common to see jobs advertised with a specification for “No Asians”. Disillusioned expats frequently cite unabashed prejudice and bigotry in the UAE as a reason to leave. In 2013 an expat blogger spoke to a friend in the medical profession and wrote about their discussions in a post entitled “Salary Racism – What’s the colour of your passport?” Indian nurses are paid roughly 2,500 dirhams ($681) per month, her friend said, while an Arab doing the same job is paid four times that. Europeans and Americans are paid the most – around 17,000 dirhams ($4,628) per month. Removing the kafala system would also have political ramifications for the Emirati elite. True citizens of the UAE are outnumbered seven to one by foreigners. Kafala reminds everyone who is boss.
Migrant workers also serve a political purpose in Israel; maintaining the economic marginalisation of Palestinians. A study conducted in the 90s – when Israel experienced a mass influx of migrant workers from south Asia, East Africa and Eastern Europe – found that employers would have to pay 50 per cent more to hire a Palestinian than a foreign worker receiving the same minimum wage, because of the benefits that are mandated for Palestinians.
It became clear the extent to which foreign workers were holding up unemployment rates amongst Palestinians when the government began deporting foreigners en masse and simultaneously issuing thousands of work permits to Palestinians. In a poll conducted last year, Palestinians were also found to be more likely than Jewish Israelis to blame unemployment problems on foreign workers. Notably, the deportations began only when Israeli citizens started complaining of unemployment – while Palestinian concerns had fallen on deaf ears.
Israelis admit they are racist – a poll conducted last year found that 95 per cent of Israelis “believe racism is a problem” – and many point to the Ethiopian community as experiencing the most prejudice (a sentiment to which the forced sterilisation of Ethiopian migrants bears testament). Half of Israelis also believe prejudice against Arabs is a problem. In 2012, 52 per cent of Israelis were found to believe that “Africans are a cancer” with regards to the Israeli economy. According to another poll conducted in 2011 by the reputable Israeli pollster Dr Mina Zemach, a third of Israelis don’t believe “Israeli Arabs” should be citizens of Israel.
The economic arguments in favour and against immigration are debated in every developed economy. What shouldn’t be up for debate, however, are the working conditions that workers – whether foreign or domestic – labour under. If southern Israel periodically becomes a war zone, foreign workers deserve as much protection from missile defence systems and bomb shelters as local workers. They also deserve houses that aren’t mere cattle sheds. If a farm worker is spraying pesticides, the fact of being Thai shouldn’t mean they don’t receive adequate protective clothing. And if Israeli authorities are putting more effort into stopping cattle being stolen than protecting human beings – who are dying as a result – something has gone wrong somewhere.
The views expressed in this article belong to the author and do not necessarily reflect the editorial policy of Middle East Monitor.