License dispute may harm fruit growers manpower

Approximately 1,200 fruit farmers have stopped paying the tax, according to the Fruit Growers Association.

Fruit farmers who have been denied licenses to employ foreign workers by the Agriculture Ministry took their case to the High Court of Justice on Monday, asking the court to sever the connection between what the farmers feel is an unfair tax and the awarding of the licenses. "For many years, fruit farmers have been paying a special tax to the Plant Growers Council for which we have gotten nothing in return," said Dugi Israeli, a pomegranate farmer, who along with fellow farmer Binyamin Kutin, is leading the struggle against the Agriculture Ministry. "This is a huge amount of money and this tax is not fair as we are the only group that has to pay something like this - so starting from this past May, we decided to stop paying it." Approximately 1,200 fruit farmers have stopped paying the tax, according to the Fruit Growers Association. The annual tax is equal to roughly 20 to 30 percent of a farmer's yearly income and is paid directly to the Plant Growers Council in monthly installments from May to September. The Plant Growers Council refused to comment on the claims or to explain what the taxes are supposed to be used for. "What we are asking is for the High Court to remove the precondition of paying the tax in order to be able to hire the foreign workers that we need to be able to operate," said Israeli. "We have only until August 16 to submit applications in order to hire foreign employees, but we can't submit them because the Plant Growers Council, which controls the application process, has been told by the Agriculture Ministry to not distribute forms to farmers who have not paid the tax." The farmers' application mentions both the Agriculture and Industry, Trade and Labor Ministries as the parties responsible for withholding the applications. While the Agriculture Ministry could not be reached for comment, the Industry, Trade and Labor Ministry told The Jerusalem Post that it will wait to hear the decision from the court before releasing a public statement. "We are determined in our fight and we feel that the Agriculture Ministry will reverse its decision," Israeli said. Meanwhile, in response to the refusal by the fruit farmers to pay the tax, the Agriculture Ministry earlier this month informed the Plant Growers Council to withhold export licenses to those who don't pay, a move the farmers claim will lead to an immediate loss of some NIS 7 million. According to David Mir, a fruit farmer from Moshav Kfar Ahim, he stands to lose this season's export crop as he has been refused the necessary permits from the Council because he has not paid the tax. "The fact that we have to pay this tax does not make any sense - the Plant Growers Council provides us with nothing and I suffer as a result of it," Mir said. "The Council and the Agriculture Ministry are behaving in a bureaucratic way that is more befitting of a Communist nation than 21st Century Israel." Without proper export licenses, farmers cannot ship their products, in this instance thousands of tons of pomegranates, abroad. "Countries such as Italy, Holland and England are not going to sit and wait for our pomegranates to arrive - they are going to run to purchase from growers in Spain, Turkey or Egypt," Mir explained to thePost. Should the proper licenses not be granted in time, Mir said farmers will incur substantial losses as the unshipped fruit is five times more than the local market can absorb. "The country needs to be supporting me instead of trying to stop me from being successful," he said. Unlike the foreign worker issue, however, Israeli and Kutin are not petitioning the court to separate the ties between the awarding of export licenses to the payment of taxes, hoping instead to reach a new agreement with the Agriculture Ministry that would not connect the two.