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'I want to change my life': Malawi workers going to Israel risk it all to escape poverty

December 12, 2023 at 2:52 pm

A group of Malawians on April 20, 2015 [BONEX JULIUS/AFP via Getty Images]

Andrew Chunga was among the first batch of Malawians who have travelled to Israel over the past few weeks to work as farm labourers.

He was part of the first group of 221 people that boarded an Israeli chartered plane on 25 November, willingly moving to a country that is waging a deadly war on the besieged Palestinian Territory of the Gaza Strip.

A week later, another group of about 200 people flew to Israel, despite furore in Malawi over a labour export agreement that critics, like opposition leader, Kondwani Nankhumwa, have termed “an evil transaction”.

For Chunga and the others who have made the trip out to Israel, though, the politics and optics hold little meaning.

For them, the decision to work in Israel is simply a matter of survival and a way to look out for their families.

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“I want to change my life, the one I have back in my village,” Chunga told Anadolu over text messages from Israel.

“I was jobless and my wife was the one providing for our family. “I felt shame as a man for not being able to provide for my family.”

Chunga, a former teacher in Malawi’s northern district of Mzimba, said he did not have to think twice about the opportunity.

“When the chance came for a job in Israel, I just grabbed it,” he said.

Chunga is now picking flowers and tending to other crops at a farm in Gefen, a small village in central Israel.

“I am working hard, sometimes up to 10 hours a day, because I want to be a millionaire when I return home,” he said.

‘There are no jobs in this country’

Ever since news of the agreement broke, thousands of Malawians have been flocking to recruitment centres in the hopes of getting a chance to work in Israel.

Many, like Samson Banda, are wary of the ongoing war, but are more than willing to take the risk to escape Malawi’s economic woes.

“There are no jobs in this country. It’s worse for you if you don’t have higher education degrees, like me. The jobs I get are menial and pay next to nothing,” Banda told Anadolu.

The 23-year-old, who lives in the capital, Lilongwe, has been struggling to get a good job since finishing secondary school in 2019.

Like a majority of Malawians, Banda lives on less than a dollar a day and is keen to migrate to Israel.

“If I get a chance, I will leave for Israel,” he said while waiting to get registered with an Israeli recruitment agent at a hotel in Lilongwe.

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Since President Lazarus Chakwera came to power in June 2020, Malawi’s economy has been in deep trouble, reeling under the impact of the COVID-19 pandemic and the Ukraine war.

Food shortage is rampant due to high prices of fertilisers, while living costs have soared, with inflation at nearly 27 per cent in October. Compounding the situation are critically low foreign reserves and a weakening currency, leaving most in the country struggling for the basics.

Creating jobs was one of Chakwera’s main election pledges, but progress on that front has been minimal.

“President Chakwera promised to create 1 million jobs. But he has not delivered on that promise,” said Banda.

‘Better to die trying to earn a living’

This new deal with Israel is widely seen as a government attempt to generate both jobs and desperately needed foreign exchange, and it came just weeks after Tel Aviv unveiled a $60 million aid package for Malawi.

For Israel, it is part of a push to fill the gap left by the 30,000 to 40,000 workers who, according to its Ministry of Agriculture, have left the country’s farms since 7 October.

It is now looking to recruit some 5,000 workers from other countries, including Malawi, a nation with which it has strong diplomatic ties since the 1960s.

In late 2020, months after Chakwera assumed office, Malawi even announced its intent to open an embassy in Jerusalem, a plan that has yet to materialise.

Gift Trapence, a human rights activist in Malawi, said the labour exchange deal has been shrouded in secrecy because “the government is aware of the danger it is putting the youths in.”

He echoes those of opposition leader, Nankhumwa, who comments the Chakwera administration for entering “an agreement with Israeli companies when it is fully aware that there is war.”

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“No sane parent can send his or her child to work in a country that is at war,” Nankhumwa said, branding the deal “an evil transaction.”

However, Information Minister, Moses Kunkuyu, defended the government, saying that not all of Israel is at war.

He said the government is aiming to take advantage of the depth of workers in Israel by “sending our young people thorough agents who are already on the ground,” adding that Malawian recruits will work in “safe areas”.

“We plan to send about 5,000 workers. That is what we are targeting, but we have had other Malawians and students working there for more than five years. So, we are just adding to those figures,” Kunkuyu told Anadolu.

Simplex Chithyola Banda, Malawi’s Finance and Economic Affairs Minister, said the deal is part of the government’s plan to boost the economy, particularly the dwindling foreign currency reserves.

“The workers have opened foreign currency denominated accounts and what this means is that they will get a small percentage of their pay for use in Israel, but the rest will be deposited into their accounts here,” he told Anadolu.

“This is where the government envisages raising $180 million a year,” he added.

All of these concerns and rebuttals seemed to hold little significance for the hundreds of people lined up outside a recruitment centre in Lilongwe.

The overwhelming sentiment there was a desire to go to Israel, no matter the danger.

Fanny Pathungo and her sister, Yollanda, travelled nearly 200 miles from the commercial hub of Blantyre to try their luck, hoping for a ticket out of Malawi and poverty.

“If we go to Israel, we will earn a lot,” said Pathungo, a 25-year-old mother of one.

“It’s better to die trying to earn a living than to languish in poverty here in Malawi.”

The views expressed in this article belong to the author and do not necessarily reflect the editorial policy of Middle East Monitor.