The Knesset Committee for Foreign Workers met Tuesday to discuss the import of foreign workers from Thailand to solve the labor shortage of rural farmers.
Committee chairman Ya'acov Katz (National Union) said he would personally oversee an arrangement to enable the workers' immediate arrival and prevent the farmers' collapse.
Representatives of the Israel Farmers Federation (IFF) attended the meeting and said they urgently needed more workers to save the agricultural season. They said by not allowing in 4,000 additional foreign workers, the government was reneging on an agreement to gradually decrease the entry of migrant workers over the next five years.
"In May, the government signed an agreement with us that was introduced as part of the Economic Arrangements Bill, in which we agreed to reduce the number of foreign workers from 28,500 in 2009 to 19,000 over five-and-a-half years, with a gradual reduction of 1,500 workers every year," IFF director-general Avshalom Vilan told The Jerusalem Post. "In the meantime, the government was supposed to provide NIS 300 million in funding, to match our NIS 600m., toward investments in labor-saving mechanization aimed at reducing overall labor needs and to enable the introduction of more Israeli workers."
Vilan said the government had stopped allowing in new workers in February, and now there were none to replace those whose permits had expired and had to leave the country. This has left the farmers with a severe shortage of workers - only about two or three workers per farm - and the labor-saving machinery is not yet available, he said.
"From the moment we signed the agreement to commit to a structural alteration to the sector, the government has been stalling the entrance of new workers," he said. "Every time, they come up with new explanations and excuses. It is convenient for the Interior Ministry, headed by Eli Yishai, to provide excuses, but they really are abusing the farmers, who are at the height of the agricultural season."
Vilan said early winter was the peak season for farmers and they need more workers than ever.
"It is now that we are harvesting the winter vegetables and the citrus fruits," he said. "We are also entering the most intense time of the year for flowers for export. They are really putting us in a situation of potential ruin."
Vilan said for the time being, the farmers were pooling their resources to tend to the most urgent cases, but that with a 30-percent shortage of workers, "we can only stretch the blanket so far."
In the committee meeting, the farmers proposed an immediate emergency plan to import 4,000 Thai workers. While the plan wasn't adopted as they suggested, Katz urged the government to do everything possible to hasten the workers' entrance. He requested that the government report back within a week on the actions it had taken to resolve the issue.
Over the last few weeks, the farmers have taken their battle with the government to the streets. To draw attention to their plight, they have been holding weekly demonstrations at junctions across the country, unloading truckloads of produce to rot in the middle of the road.
The farmers' protests come at an inconvenient time for the government, which is currently facing harsh criticism for its policies on foreign workers. A deportation campaign is under way to expel illegal migrants, many of whom entered the country with work permits that have now expired or they lost their jobs. By bringing in new Thai workers, the government would open itself up to attacks by those who accuse it of running a revolving-door policy.
The farmers insist that the government is obligated to respect the agreement and provide them with the workers they need.