Arava farmers protest 248 88.
(photo credit: Courtesy of Gilad Livni)
Hundreds of Arava farmers arrived in Jerusalem Sunday morning to protest the government's refusal to admit hundreds of foreign workers from Thailand into the country to lend a hand in the upcoming harvest.
The Arava farmers, some of whom made their way to the capital after a three-day tractor journey from the south, met with family members and farmers from around the country and held a protest outside the Prime Minister's Office during the weekly cabinet meeting.
They are maligning the shortage of 4,000 Thai workers, who they claim are desperately needed for the winter vegetable harvest. The farmers say the state is violating a deal they had agreed on earlier this year whereby there would be a gradual reduction of foreign workers' permits over the next five years, and in exchange the state would subsidize labor-reducing technologies to decrease dependency on foreign labor.
The farmers say the government reneged on the agreement when it stopped the entry of Thai workers completely, leaving them without farm hands and in danger of failing to meet their commitments to the international market.
"The Arava farmers are not asking for handouts or charity, we are only asking that the government honor its agreement with us," said farmers' representative Chaim Chevlin. "The government must decide whether it wants to support the periphery. If so, it must not only assist, but also stop sabotaging its farmers' livelihoods.
"A government that doesn't honor agreements and knowingly undermines farmers who reside hundreds of kilometers from the center and develop [frontier areas] ought to ask itself penetrating questions regarding its priorities," he said.
Chevlin said 60 percent of Israel's fresh produce is grown in the Arava, and because of the shortage of workers, hundreds of thousands of tons of produce are now in danger unless 600 new workers are allowed in immediately to replace those whose work permits have expired.
Israel Farmers' Federation director Avshalom Vilan said the state's refusal to allow the Thai workers to come to Israel was because of a disagreement with the Thai government on the system of importing workers.
"The Justice Ministry is trying to educate the Thai government, and that's what's holding things up," said Vilan.
In 2007, the Israeli government encouraged the Thai Ministry of Labor to sign an agreement that would require all foreign workers to arrive through the auspices of the International Organization for Migration, which regulates the flow of foreign workers between countries. The agreement was meant to improve the conditions of foreign workers by ensuring that they would not be forced to pay exorbitant commissions to private employment agencies.
An enforced agreement with the United Nations-supported IOM would mean that instead of paying up to $8,000 in fees, migrant workers would pay only flight expenses, plus a $600 membership fee that would include medical exams and vaccinations.
All educational facilities and public services in the Arava went on strike Sunday in solidarity with the protest and to allow the farmers' children to attend the demonstration. Farmers claim police blocked 13 tractors at the entrance to the city on their way to join the demonstration.
The Arava farmers have been protesting the lack of workers for the past two months, engaging in a variety of actions to draw attention to their cause, such as blocking traffic with agricultural vehicles and spilling truckloads of produce to rot in the road.
Aside form the issue of foreign workers, the Arava farmers are also objecting to the lack of government policy regarding the periphery.
"The state's treatment of its farmers warrants an investigation by the state comptroller," said Arava Region council head Ezra Rabins.