2000 Thai workers expected to arrive next week

Farmers Association reaches deal with gov't; rights groups cite exorbitant fees charged to migrants.

foreign workers kids 248.88 (photo credit: Courtesy of 'Israeli Children')
foreign workers kids 248.88
(photo credit: Courtesy of 'Israeli Children')
Two thousand Thai workers are expected to arrive over the next week to take their place in Israel's fields and greenhouses. An agreement struck between the government and the Israel Farmers Association approved the import of new workers after representatives of the agricultural sector said it was necessary to save farmers from heavy losses caused by labor shortages. Chaim Chadad, the man in charge of foreign workers affairs in the Farmers Association, said that since the beginning of the year no Thai workers were allowed into the country to replace those whose permits expired, causing a critical shortage of workers. "There are simply no agriculture workers in Israel," said Chadad. "We've tried different methods of recruiting people, but it is a job considered too lowly for Israelis to do, no matter how much pay is offered." He characterized the work in agriculture as routine, tiresome and difficult. "It's tedious work, from morning to night in hot greenhouses. We've approached people from all sectors of society and nobody wants the jobs." With the entrance of the 2,000 new workers, the total number of foreign workers in the agricultural sector will reach 26,000. This is 1,500 less than the number previously agreed on between the government and the Farmers Association. The move comes at a time when the government, with the aid of the newly established Oz unit, part of the Immigration Authority in the Interior Ministry, is in the midst of a large deportation campaign targeting illegal immigrants. In its first month of operation, the unit deported 391 people, while an additional 1,500 people left willingly following a publicity drive. Government officials, including Interior Minister Eli Yishai, Finance Minister Yuval Steinitz and Prime Minister Binyamin Netanyahu, have repeatedly said the deportations were being carried out because migrants were taking jobs away from Israelis. The import of 2,000 Thai workers came after a comprehensive agreement was reached between Farmers Association general-secretary Avshalom Vilan and the goverment, with the aid of Agriculture Minister Shalom Simhon. It is meant to regulate the employment of migrant workers in agriculture for the next five years, and will see a gradual decrease in the import of foreign workers and an NIS 320 million investment in labor-saving technologies. An agreement was also reached with the Thai government whereby the Thai Ministry of Labor would make efforts to prevent workers from being charged exorbitant fees in exchange for being brought to work in Israel. The agreement was reached during a recent visit of Thai Labor Minister Phaithoon Kaeothong to Israel. Human rights organizations and worker's rights groups have heavily criticized the common practice of charging fees that range from $5,500 to $12,500 per worker by Thai and Israeli employment agencies for bringing the workers to Israel. They proposed that instead of using financially motivated private companies, it would be better to import migrant workers through the International Organization for Migration, an intergovernmental organization based in Switzerland which works to ensure the orderly and humane management of migration. According to a report by Dan Cooper from Kav LaOved (Worker's Hotline), agricultural workers make the lowest wages of all sectors, averaging NIS 12.80 per hour, and often have huge debts to pay back for the commission fees charged by the employment agencies. On Tuesday, a group of six rights organizations published a proposal for regulating the employment of foreign migrants in Israel. The group, which includes Kav LaOved, the Hotline for Migrant Workers, Physicians for Human Rights, the Association of Civil Rights in Israel, the Adva Center and the Elga Cegla Clinical Legal Education Programs at the Tel Aviv University Faculty of Law, seeks to solve the fundamental problems of a lack of long-term immigration policy, the corruption involved in the import of workers, and the faulty employment practices that exist in the fields that employ them.