Farmers to take action to protest foreign worker shortage

Independent farmers and farmers’ organizations may cut off produce deliveries.

FOREIGN WORKERS 311 (photo credit: Ariel Jerozolimski)
(photo credit: Ariel Jerozolimski)
Israeli farmers are threatening to stop shipping fresh produce to the markets unless the state responds to their demand for more foreign workers.
The timing of the farmers’ strike, which is planned to be a show of force lasting three days, has yet to be announced; the farmers plan to spring it as a surprise, leaving the distributors no time to prepare alternatives and shocking the government into action.
Independent farmers and farmers’ organizations are meeting to decide on a course of action to take against the state for what they claim is its failure to deliver on promises regarding quotas on foreign workers.
Organizers say that even if only 80 percent of the farmers cooperate, the harm to the market will be sufficient to get the government to respond.
“A year ago, the farmers, through the Israeli Farmers Association (IFA), signed a deal with the government that would see a gradual decrease in the number of foreign workers permits given to farmers, in exchange for grants to introduce labor-saving technology.
But what happened is that the decline wasn’t gradual at all, and now we find ourselves short between 4,000 and 5,000 workers,” said IFA secretary general Avshalom Vilan.
“According to the agreement, in 2010 there should be 26,000 workers here, but in actuality there are only 21,500, and Population, Immigration and Borders Authority (PIBA) won’t allow any more in,” he said.
Fruit Growers Association head Ilan Eshel said that “we have reached a point where there is no other option but to resort to drastic measures.
We are desperate, and there is no other way.”
Eshel said the Israeli public wanted Israeli produce, but didn’t understand the amount of work it took to grow and harvest it.
“When they go to the supermarket and see no local produce, then they may complain to the government,” he said.
“There are two things that can avert the strike at this stage. One is if the government agrees to open the doors and begin bringing in workers from Thailand, and the other is if farmers fail to organize and some to decide to continue marketing their produce despite the strike,” said Eshel.
“We are currently assessing the situation, and on Wednesday we will hold a meeting of all the major farmers and the organizations to decide on a plan of action,” he said.
Eshel said that the fruit and vegetable growers were in negotiations with egg and milk producers in attempts to draw them into the strike, too.
“Another thing that may help is if the government allows us to transfer workers from one farm to another,” he said.
“Currently the ones who are in most desperate need are the avocado farmers in the North and the vegetable farmers in the Arava. If we could send workers from places where they are not so desperately needed to places where they are, it might be a temporary solution, but the government won’t even allow us to do that,” said Eshel.
The Agriculture Ministry said in response that it is not responsible for the decision to bring in new foreign workers.
“All we do is decide how many workers should be assigned to every farm; it’s the cabinet that decides on the general quotas,” said a ministry spokeswoman.
“The ministry has invested money and taken actions to reduce farmers’ dependency on foreign workers, but the farmers’ needs are real.”
Last year the farmers staged protest events all across the country, with the struggle culminating in a tractor convoy to Jerusalem and a mass demonstration in front of the Knesset. As a result of the protest the government agreed, in May, to import 3,700 additional workers.
Aharon Barazani, senior manager of the Interior Ministry’s Permit and Payment Division, said the state is prevented from bringing in additional workers from Thailand because of a prior government decision, from 2008, which stipulates that only 60% of the agriculture workers in Israel can come from Thailand.
“The government decision says that 60% of the workers can come from Thailand and 40% from other countries.
The current makeup is closer to 80%-20%, but after a twoyear delay, we can’t afford to disregard the government’s decision any longer,” said Barazani. “The Supreme Court won’t allow us to.”
“The Supreme Court ruled that Israel couldn’t import workers from foreign countries unless they signed a bilateral agreement under the auspices of the International Organization for Migration that would regulate their arrival. We are prepared to sign the deal with Thailand immediately, but they are refusing to sign,” said Barazani.
Barazani said that the Supreme Court decision was the result of a petition by workers advocacy group Kav LaOved, against the commissions charged by employment agencies importing workers from Thailand, fees in excess of $8,000 per worker.
“Since May several thousand Thai workers have entered the country, but we have to remember that many also leave. Every year the permits of 5,000 workers expire and they leave the country. So far we have been able to bring a new one in for every one that leaves,” said Barazani.
“Since Amnon Ben-Ami became head of PIBA, we have been very good to the farmers.
The farmers never count the workers who leave them [without leaving the country] in their tallies, but we do.
“According to our numbers there are around 24,000 Thai workers in Israel. The missing numbers still count toward the general quota, but we overlooked them [and are still importing workers] because we know the farmers need workers.”
In the meantime the state is looking for alternative sources of agricultural workers.
Earlier this week PIBA began a pilot project, flying in 300 workers from Sri Lanka with six-month work permits.
The premise is that bringing in workers from Sri Lanka for shorter periods, during peak agricultural seasons, will solve some of the problems associated with the long-term stays of Thai workers.