The Agriculture Ministry is introducing a five-year plan to encourage investment in labor-saving technologies to help the agricultural sector reduce its dependence on foreign workers.
"Just as we managed to deal with the water shortage by taking efficiency steps, the new plan contains various measures that will enable the agricultural sector in Israel to overcome the shortage of workers," Agriculture Minister Shalom Simhon said this week.
The plan, which will have a budget of NIS 625 million, was developed after the Agriculture Ministry thwarted the Finance Ministry's attempt to drastically reduce the number of foreign workers to 3,000 by 2014 and to double the annual fee and tax levied on the employment of foreign workers.
"Over the past decade farmers have become fully dependent on foreign workers, which is threatening their survival," Simhon said. "In light of the government's recent efforts to reduce the employment of foreign workers, we saw an urgent need to implement a plan for the gradual move to mechanized agriculture, to come to an agreement over a clear long-term policy for the employment of foreign workers in the agricultural sector and to lift the uncertainty over the shortage of workers that is causing farmers much concern."
In recent months, the Finance Ministry has been implementing steps to cut back on the number of foreign workers and encourage Israelis to work in their place, in response to unemployment and the economic downturn. The move has led to a shortage of workers in agriculture and construction.
In addition, the government, with the aid of the newly established Oz unit, part of the Interior Ministry's Immigration Authority, in recent months has been conducting a widespread deportation campaign targeting illegal immigrants.
As part of the Agriculture Ministry's 2010-2015 plan, NIS 250m. will be allocated to subsidize investments in labor-saving technologies aimed at increasing productivity. The ministry will provide grants for the purchase and adaptation of technologies, mechanization and production processes that can take the place of workers. The grants will cover 40 percent of the investment.
The introduction of mechanization is aimed at encouraging the employment of Israeli workers as operators of technologies and machinery, Agriculture Ministry director-general Yossi Yashai said. Starting next year, NIS 45m. would be allocated to support farmers in the employment of 1,500 Israeli workers instead of foreign workers, he said. In the following three years, NIS 30m. would be budgeted to support the employment of Israeli workers, he said.
The plan includes a budget of NIS 30m. for the Agriculture Ministry's Chief Scientist's Office for the development of technologies that can replace workers.
The number of foreign workers employed in the agricultural sector will be gradually reduced over five years, according to the plan. The ceiling on the employment of foreign workers, which was reduced from 28,500 to 27,500 in 2009, will be cut to 18,900 by 2015, according to the plan.