Interior Min. to bringing Sri Lankan workers for farm work

100 seasonal workers from Sri Lanka will land on Wednesday at Ben-Gurion Airport to assist Israeli farmers for 6 months, during the seasonal peak.

By RON FRIEDMAN
October 26, 2010 06:28
3 minute read.
A rice harvester in near Yichun city in e. China.

Chinese agriculture 311. (photo credit: Associated Press)

 
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The Interior Ministry’s Population, Immigration and Borders Authority (PIBA) is embarking on a pilot project that may fundamentally change how foreign workers are employed in the agriculture sector.

A hundred seasonal workers from Sri Lanka will land on Wednesday at Ben-Gurion Airport to assist Israeli farmers for six months, during the seasonal peak.

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The workers and 200 more will be arriving on government- sponsored flights to participate in the test project on 80 farms across the country.

Aharon Barazani, senior manager of PIBA’s permit and payment division, said the pilot initiative grew out of a Bank of Israel recommendation to replace permanent workers, predominantly from Thailand, with seasonal workers. It would completely reform current hiring and employment practices.

“The project is being coordinated between the government of Israel, the government of Sri Lanka and the Geneva-based International Organization for Migration.

We believe that the involvement of these three bodies will ensure that some of the practices currently in place – primarily, the employment agencies charging workers exorbitant commission charges – will come to a halt,” Barazani said.

He explained that under the current arrangement, foreign workers are given permits to live and work in Israel for five years. In contrast, participants in the pilot program will be given permits for only six months, thus reducing many of the problems that arise from extended stays.



“The agriculture industry is a cyclical one, which ebbs and flows according to the seasons of the year. By abridging the time workers may stay, we focus on the farmers’ actual needs during the peak seasons and prevent cases of worker transfer [to other employers], which are at the root of many of the rights abuses in the industry.

“The way it works now is that once the peak season is over, the farmers have to find alternative tasks for the workers, and in many cases, hand them over to other farmers who grow different crops,” said Barazani.

Barazani added that the shorter stays would also enable the farmers to employ more workers.

“Today, a farmer may have six workers for a lengthy period of time, but under this pilot – if successful – the farmer could have 10 workers during the time he really needs them.”

Barazani said that the pilot would be closely monitored by PIBA and the Bank of Israel, from the moment the workers land, up until the day they leave.

When asked how PIBA would prevent workers staying beyond their permitted six months, Barazani said responsibility for explaining the laws and the penalties for overstaying the visa lay with the Sri Lankan government and the International Organization for Migration, and he hoped that by working with those bodies, illicit overstays could be prevented.

If the pilot proved successful, it would be adopted on a larger scale and eventually transform the way the sector worked, Barazani said.

The announcement of the new project was welcomed by Haim Hevlin, chairman of the agricultural committee in the Arava. Hevlin, who is currently fighting PIBA in the Supreme Court over its refusal to allow in additional Thai workers, said the Sri Lankan solution may solve the farmers’ shortage of workers in the long run, but did not affect the current crisis.

“Seasonal workers could prove a good remedy provided they get here on time, work properly and leave after their permit expires,” Hevlin said.

He, however, expressed skepticism that the solution would help salvage the upcoming season, and contends there is a shortfall of 4,000 workers who are needed on Israeli farms within a month.

Kav LaOved – Workers Hotline declined to comment on the initiative, saying that further research into the subject was required. “In any case, we hope that workers rights are protected,” said the group’s spokeswoman.

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