Israel to let in another 3,700 foreign workers

Farmers welcome decision after labor shortage led to NIS 150m. in losses.

By RON FRIEDMAN
May 4, 2010 05:52
3 minute read.
Thai worker on farm in South

foreign worker311. (photo credit: Ariel Jerozolimski)

 
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Amid a government crackdown on illegal foreign workers, the Interior Ministry’s Population, Immigration and Borders Authority announced Sunday evening that it would permit the import of 3,700 foreign laborers for work in the agricultural sector.

The decision followed months of protests by Israeli farmers, who claim the shortage of workers has caused them irrecoverable losses.

According to the authority, 98 percent of the farmers recently concluded the process of file-balancing, which requires every farmer who employs foreign workers to declare how many he employs, how many left over the previous year, and how many he requires for future operations. With the file-balancing complete, the authority determined that there was a shortage of 4,800 workers, and authorized importing new workers to fill the ranks.

Of those vacant positions, 1,100 will be filled by foreign workers who are currently in the country but not employed, 3,000 will be flown in from Thailand, and 700 will be imported from other countries.

“Great efforts were made to assist the farmers in completing the process, and all our resources were dedicated to finalizing things as quickly as possible,” said Population, Immigration and Borders Authority director-general Amnon Ben-Ami. “The well-being of the employers and the benefit of the sector was before our eyes at all times.”

The Arava farmers union welcomed the news, saying the decision meant many farms would be saved from economic collapse.

“The decision to import Thai workers for agriculture is the right one, and it comes at a critical time for Israel’s farmers, at the start of the summer harvest season,” said Chaim Chevlin, chairman of the Arava’s agricultural committee. Chevlin said that the damage caused to farms in the region during the worker shortage amounted to NIS 150 million, most of it impacting young families who had settled in the region recently.


“The significance of the important decision is the rescuing of farms, but also a clear statement of support of Zionism and settlements,” said Chevlin. “I hope that we will not be forced to continue battling for working hands and that the government will continue to help us make the desert bloom.”

Israel Farms Federation secretary-general Avshalom Vilan, chose to downplay the decision’s importance. In an interview with The Jerusalem Post, he said the government was “spitting in the face of the farmers.” Vilan claimed that the decision to import 3,700 workers fell short of the government’s commitment to the farmers in a deal signed in May of last year.


“The agreement said that on January 1, there would be 26,000 foreign laborers for agriculture, and now, even after the recent decision, we will have 25,000 at best,” he said. “Who can speak about success when the message the government puts out is that it doesn’t honor agreements?”

“I have never seen the sovereign act in such a way,” he said. “Because state officials can’t coordinate their actions, the government reneges on its obligation and sends out the message that everyone should do what’s in their own individual self-interest.”

The decision to bring in new workers from abroad comes at a time when the government is campaigning strongly against the employment of illegal foreign workers, claiming they take up jobs that should go to Israelis and urging employers not to hire them.

Israel is currently home to 70,000 legal foreign workers and 150,000 illegal ones. The average income of a legal foreign worker is around NIS 4,000 per month. According to the workers’ rights group Kav La’Oved, many legal workers receive less than minimum wage.

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