International Women’s Day, observed around the world this Saturday, gives both individuals and countries the space to stop and reflect upon progress as well as areas in need of improvement when it comes to gender discrimination.
Israel is no exception, and while most of the attention will likely be given to the gaps between Israeli men and women, the Israeli public would be remiss if it did not use this day to think about the conditions of female migrant women brought by the state to work in Israel.
From sexual harassment and assault to human trafficking, women in Israel suffer some of the most severe violations of their rights in the migrant agricultural labor sector. Out of approximately 22,000 mostly Thai migrant agricultural workers in Israel, around 2,000 are women, and the sector in which they work is rife with issues of exploitation and abuse.
In general, the people who grow our food represent one of the most disadvantaged groups of workers in Israel.
According to the National Insurance Institute, over 33 percent of agricultural workers are paid below the legal minimum wage of NIS 23.12 ($6.60), and workers sometimes go unpaid for months. Furthermore, many migrant workers are in debt from brokerage fees they paid in order to come work in Israel.
The challenge of paying off debt while also trying to send money back home virtually binds workers to their employers, leading many to tolerate very poor, even inhumane, working conditions.
These violations affect all migrant workers in the agriculture filed. However, for women workers, this is only half the story.
Working in remote and secluded areas, female migrant workers are typically outnumbered 10 to one by their male counterparts. After working from dawn to dusk in the fields, a group of around 25 workers, including two or three women, might line up for the use of just two showers and two toilets, trying to wash up and still have time to eat and even make a Skype call back home.
Since they are not provided with gender- specific accommodations or bathing facilities, the women in this scenario might wait until all the men have showered before taking their turn as to avoid embarrassment or harassment, and are very lucky if they have their own room to return to. Most workers, men and women alike, share very cramped living spaces and sleeping quarters.
J, a female migrant worker from Thailand, lives and works alongside over two dozen men, planting and growing herbs in the Beit Shean region. “Sharing bathrooms and showers with all these men who I never met before coming to Israel is very uncomfortable, and I have no sense of privacy. I would really like separate facilities for men and women” says J. “Sometimes I feel afraid to be alone around the men, and if I didn’t have my husband here with me, I would not feel safe, especially when I am around them when they are drinking.”
Kav LaOved – Worker’s Hotline issued a report on gender-based violations of labor rights that the female minority of the agricultural workforce faces. The report details that many female workers feel the need to seek out protection in the form of a boyfriend or husband while they work in Israel – relationships that could become abusive and exacerbate the vulnerability of women.
The lack of privacy and separate amenities makes women susceptible to sexual and physical abuse. This issue was brought to the attention of the Knesset Committee on Foreign Workers last December, as were suggestions for new housing regulations, but so far there has been no improvement and women continue to face this harsh reality.
“It’s sad to see how female agricultural workers in Israel are not only being ignored as workers, but as women too” says Noa Shauer of Kav LaOved. “The accommodations we are seeing are horrendous, and female workers have to find their way through them – improvising a room for themselves, waiting for the shower to be free and putting a crude lock on their door.”
Sometimes, female agricultural workers are assigned to work outside the realm of their contracts, commonly taking on jobs as cleaners. Instances of sex work have also been documented.
These coercive work arrangements put women at risk of being sexually and physically abused by Israeli employers or employers’ family members. Knowing little to nothing about their rights as workers and human beings in Israel, many women do not realize their right to seek help and file claims against employers or fellow workers.
When female agricultural workers do try and reach out for help, their voices often go unheard. Insufficient translation services on the part of Israeli authorities make it difficult for them to contact the police. To make matters worse, the force that dealt with human trafficking and slavery-like conditions in Israel, the Saar unit, was shut down in 2011. Subsequently there is no protocol for dealing with migrant workers who have faced exploitation of this kind; regular police officials do not have the cultural sensitivity or psychosocial support training to properly handle such cases and are failing to do so. “The needs and rights of women are invisible to the authorities and the clearest evidence of this is the closing of Saar police unit,” says Shauer.
On International Women’s Day, we are called upon to recognize the achievements of women and women’s rights while also focusing our efforts on areas that need further attention. The personal and professional needs of migrant women working in agricultural must be met to better ensure their physical and emotional safety and security. As long as the government continues to turn a blind eye to this issue, the women who work in our fields will continue to suffer – a major blemish on the record of women’s rights in Israel.
The writer is from New York and is currently interning at Kav LaOved – Worker’s Hotline.