Thai workers in Israel are dying, and it's got to stop
Praiwan Seesukha, a healthy 37-year-old Thai man from Isan, went to sleep on the night of May 21, 2013, and never woke up.
On a tiny desk in the cramped room in Israel where he died were sheets of paper on which he'd methodically written down his working hours. The next day, Praiwan's colleagues cooked a meal in his honour, described him as a kind and very hard-working man, and confirmed what his notes showed: He had been working up to 17 hours a day, every day, with no day off.
What is shocking is that neither Praiwan Seesukha's death nor his working hours were exceptional.
There are 25,000 Thai workers in Israel's highly-developed agricultural sector. Almost half of them work under the terms of a 2011 bilateral agreement (the Thailand Israel Cooperation agreement, or TIC) that reduced the recruitment fees workers must pay to secure employment in Israel from approximately $10,000 (326,000 baht) to $850. This is a creditable achievement — and Gulf states like Qatar and the United Arab Emirates, where exorbitant fees remain a key part of highly exploitative labour systems, should take note. But new Human Rights Watch (HRW) research reveals that, despite this advance, serious human rights abuses are common in Israel's agricultural sector.
Between 2008 and 2013, 122 Thai agricultural workers died in Israel — roughly two a month. While some of the causes of death seemed to have no relation to their working situation, the official reason given for the 43 deaths was "sudden unexplained death syndrome", which supposedly affects young and otherwise healthy Asian men. And in another 22 cases, Israeli government officials didn't even investigate the cause of death.
But the authorities have not adequately looked into another highly plausible possibility — that some of these men died from heat stroke caused by overwork in harsh, sometimes desert-like conditions. Many of the 173 Thai workers HRW spoke to described gruelling work schedules. One worker said he felt "like dead meat" after a working day that typically began at 4.30am and ended at 7pm. A colleague of his described their employer who sometimes watched them working in his fields through binoculars, as treating them "like slaves".
When we visited workers on a number of farms, every group we met said they were paid salaries significantly below Israel's legal minimum wage and forced to work hours significantly in excess of the legal maximum. Living conditions were often primitive and unhygienic. We found one group of workers living in a large outbuilding — where they had ingeniously fashioned individual sleeping quarters out of scrap cardboard.
Another group lived in cabins adjoining a greenhouse and said they found it difficult to breathe in the hot summer months. We found another group living in a corrugated iron shed next to an outflow dump from a food packaging facility with no toilet facilities.
Despite the well-known dangers associated with spraying pesticides, many Thai workers said their employers provided inadequate protective clothing or none at all. Many complained of serious health problems from pesticide exposure, including chest pain, nausea, vomiting and other symptoms. A pregnant woman told HRW that she and her partner "covered our mouths with our clothes" when working with pesticides.
In response to a group of 29 workers complaining of skin rashes they associated with their use of pesticides, their employer told them they should "drink water" and that they should call their families in Thailand and ask them to send medicine.
Israel's laws are intended to protect workers and deter illegal practices, but laws must be effectively enforced in order to be effective. The Israeli authorities have failed in this regard.
This is far from an intractable problem. The implementation of the TIC shows that the Israeli government is capable of taking steps that result in significant progress for workers' rights and welfare. This is true even in the face of opposition from influential lobby groups — like Israel's manpower agents, who strenuously opposed the TIC for cutting into their profits.
The Israeli authorities should establish a core law enforcement unit that is responsible for all aspects of safeguarding agricultural workers' rights, ensure that it is sufficiently staffed and resourced, and empower its inspectors to initiate investigations that would lead to meaningful sanctions for law violators. Ensuring that employers adhere to the law on minimum wage and maximum working hours should be a short-term priority.
Most urgently, government authorities should immediately conduct independent investigations into deaths of all Thai workers in the agricultural sector since 2008 with a view to impartially determining to what extent migrant workers' living and working conditions contributed to their deaths.
In the absence of such an investigation, with clear procedures to establish what role exertional heat stroke may have played in these deaths, the authorities' attribution of so many fatalities to a genetic predisposition to sudden death from cardiac arrest should be viewed with the utmost scepticism.
Israel needs to take steps to both safeguard Thai workers' rights and improve the reputation of a sector that makes an important contribution to Israel's economy. Inaction jeopardises lives and livelihoods.
Nicholas McGeehan is a Middle East researcher at Human Rights Watch and the author of a new study of conditions for Thai migrant workers in Israel.