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(photo credit: Ariel Jerozolimski)
Agricultural firm Katif Venture and Development Ltd. may grow environmentally friendly produce, but when it comes to their treatment of workers, their practices, it appears, are anything but friendly. Last week, the company and two of its managers were charged with severe maltreatment of 12 foreign workers from Thailand that they employed.
The indictment, filed in the Beersheba Magistrate's Court against Katif Ventures work site manager Amir Ben-Shlomo and fieldwork manager Ronen Cohen, says that the company, which specializes in growing pesticide-free vegetables, employed the workers in degrading and inhumane conditions, did not provide them with reasonable housing or food and applied pressure against them in the form of punishments and threats.
The indictment added that the defendants exploited the mental and financial distress of the foreign workers, who feared losing their jobs in Israel, restricted their freedom and disregarded their equal rights as human beings.
According to the indictment, the Thai laborers were forced to work between 15-20 hours a day, seven days a week on a farm in Kfar Maimon, near the Gaza Strip.They were paid NIS 13-15 an hour, well under the legally mandated minimum wage of NIS 20.70 per hour, and without overtime.
The workers were allegedly housed in overcrowded, temporary sheds that left them exposed to the weather and were told to work with dangerous chemicals without the company providing proper protection.
The indictment also stated that the workers were under constant threats of job-termination and deportation by their supervisors, who constantly urged them to work faster.
The case, which has been characterized in the Israeli media and by workers' rights organization as an example of modern day slavery, was brought to the authorities' attention by Kav Laoved (Workers Hot line), a nonprofit, non-governmental organization committed to protecting the rights of disadvantaged workers.
"We visited Kfar Maimon following complaints we received from the workers. There we were told about the difficult conditions and decided to file a complaint with the police," said Tom Mehager, a Kav Laoved caseworker. "We participated in the investigation and as a result the charges were filed and the workers were taken to a shelter before being dispersed to new employers."
According to Mehager, Kav Laoved receives around 15 complaints a month from foreign workers who feel they are being abused. He said the number would probably be higher if the workers were aware of their rights. He also said that the government does not do enough to notify the workers of their rights or to address their complaints.
"Unfortunately, we have more contact with the foreign workers than the government agencies who are charged with protecting them, simply because we have people who speak their language," he said.
Mehager said that most of the complaints they receive are about unfair wages or excessive work hours. He said that in extreme situations, like the one that took place in Kfar Maimon, Kav Laoved files a complaint with the police, but that in most cases they refer the complaints to the agency in charge of enforcing foreign migrant employment regulation in the Ministry of Industry, Trade and Labor.
Kessie Gonen, who works as a translator and caseworker for Kav Laoved, moved to Israel from Thailand four years ago. With a background in NGO work, she came here prepared to help enforce humane working conditions for Thai laborers. She said that situations like the one in Kfar Maimon arise because the workers have no one to look out for them.
"Most of the Thai workers don't understand or don't know their rights here in Israel," said Gonen. "From my understanding, I don't think the government does anything to raise awareness among the workers."
According to Gonen, the Thai Embassy in Herzliya also receives complaints from workers, but she said that the embassy is limited to dealing with matters on a diplomatic level and cannot get involved in particular cases.
"They [the Thai workers] are in constant fear that if they cause problems they will be sent home," said Gonen, explaining that the average Thai worker pays between $10,000-14,000 in mediation fees to employment agencies in Thailand to come work in Israel. "They are fearful of having to go home before they have managed to pay off this fee."
Gonen said that she has also heard of cases where in order to have workers' visas taken away from them, employment agencies have transfered the workers from one employer to another without proper documentation, thus causing them to be illegal and subject to deportation.
According to the Foreign Workers' Rights Handbook issued by the Interior Ministry, "A foreign worker in Israel is entitled to the same working conditions as an Israeli employee." These rights include things like mandatory health insurance and social security, specific requirements for housing (with particulars on salary deductions in exchange), a guarantee of minimum wage and overtime payments, weekly rest periods and vacation pay and legally mandated severance pay.
"The maximum recruitment fee which may be legally charged to foreign workers recruited abroad is 3,276.52 NIS, in addition to airfare to Israel. The above sum includes sums paid to agents abroad as well as the sum paid to the Israeli agency," says the handbook.
Katif Venture and development Ltd., through their communications firm Naor Tikshoret, declined to respond to the details of the indictment.