Farmers’ strike could go into weekend if no progress

Extension of strike hinges on meeting with ministers; prices and availability still stable but could be felt if strike continues.

By RON FRIEDMAN
November 24, 2010 06:49
3 minute read.
Arava farmers demonstrate for foreign workers

Farmers protest 311. (photo credit: Gilad Livni)

The fate of the farmers’ strike, which enters its third day on Wednesday, and may extend beyond the originally announced ending date of Thursday, hinges on a meeting between the farmers representatives and the ministers of finance, interior, and agriculture planned for Wednesday morning.

Though until now fresh produce prices and availability remained stable, due to retailers stocking up on the produce in advance, if the strike continues shortages will begin to be felt.

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“The meeting brings together a forum that can provide solutions to the foreign workers crisis. We hope that we will reach a solution that will lead to the strike ending Wednesday afternoon, but if the government fails to take concrete steps to provide a solution, the organizers will reconvene to examine further measures and it will be decided whether or not to extend the strike to the weekend,” said Israel Farmers Federation secretary-general Avshalom Vilan.

The strike was announced more than two weeks ago over conflicting claims by the farmers and the government regarding the number of foreign workers meant to be employed in the agriculture sector in relation to quota agreements signed by the two sides in May 2009.

The agreement stipulated that there would be an annual reduction of 2,000 workers from the initial quota in exchange for government aid earmarked for labor-reducing technology in the agricultural sector.

The farmers claim the government’s is not honoring the agreement, saying claiming that they are short 4,500 workers and that their absence causes irrecoverable damages to the sector. The government, on the other hand, claims that the shortage is of only 1,500 workers and that it is the farmers’ fault because many failed to complete the paperwork required to approve new permits.

The strike, originally scheduled to last three days, includes a marketing freeze on all locally produced products, including fruits and vegetables, eggs, milk, flowers and fresh meat and poultry. Though facing financial losses, the farmers, for now, are united in their desire to pressure the government into meeting their demands for more foreign workers for the sector.

Business analysis company Dun & Bradstreet reported on Tuesday that the strike was costing NIS 92.7 million a day in terms of agricultural output. The main ones to suffer so far have been the farmers themselves and the owners of small groceries who don’t have the ability to keep produce in cold storage.

But as the strike lingers, the produce stored by the supermarket chains, hotels, army bases, restaurants, catering companies and others, will begin to go bad, forcing retailers to either import the produce from abroad or else leave the shelves empty. In any case if the strike extends beyond the originally planned timetable and new products are not delivered to the wholesale markets, prices are expected to rise.

The farmers received support from Knesset members from across the political spectrum.

The Kadima Party sent out an announcement on Tuesday stating that “The party, which was founded by Ariel Sharon, a man of the rural settlement movement, stands with the farmers in their battle.

“This is the first time since the founding of Israel that Israeli farmers have gone on strike, blocking the marketing of produce. This reflects their difficult position and should not be taken lightly. Kadima is helping the farmers bring an end to the strike through its actions in the Knesset and calls on the prime minister and the government of Israel to honor the agreements they signed and enable the farmers the manpower they desperately need to allow them to operate with dignity,” read the announcement.

National Union chairman Ya’acov Katz also sided with the farmers, stating “The agricultural sector is one of the productive industries that glorify our country. We must avoid hurting this wonderful and idealist public and avoid, God forbid, the transfer of ownership of farmlands to non-Jewish hands.

“Instead of humiliating the farmers, who need to beg for assistance, the government should show extra fondness towards the desert bloomers and be the one who courts the farmers by setting agricultural benchmarks in exchange for bonuses and expansion of the agricultural hi-tech sector,” said Katz.

Shas MK Yitzhak Vaknin went so far as to threaten to torpedo the passing of the economic arrangements bill unless the farmers crisis is solved.

“Unless a solution is found, expect a total disruption in the proceedings of the [Knesset] Finance Committee. The arrangements bill will get stuck and I will do everything to stall its approval until the foreign workers problem is solved.”


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