Bittersweet harvest

Israel is seen as the promised land by many Thai farm workers but some dreams end badly.

A need to overcome scarcity and the lack of arable land has driven Israel to develop some of the world's most advanced agricultural practices and technologies. As a result it is able to produce almost all of the food its 8 million people need and have more left over to export.

Nearly all of the people who help power the Israeli agricultural miracle are from Thailand. The estimated 25,000 Thai workers who toil in the fields represent more than 80% of the country's agricultural workforce. Their efforts helped Israel earn US$1.4 billion from fresh produce exports to the European Union, Russia, the United States and other markets.

"Thai workers spend just over five years in Israel before their work permits expire. They can earn large sums of money [during] that time — far more than they would in Thailand — which explains why they keep coming," said Nicholas McGeehan, a researcher with the Middle East and North Africa division of Human Rights Watch (HRW).

Thailand has been sending farm workers to Israel for decades. The rich rewards, however, can come at a high price. Underpayment of wages, exposure to harmful chemicals, long hours and abusive treatment have been reported, and drug use by workers is said to be rampant.

Then there are the deaths: 122 between 2008 and 2013 according to the Israeli Health Ministry and documented in "A Raw Deal", the HRW report written by Mr McGeehan. The problematic pattern of the deaths, some of which Israeli authorities have so far failed to investigate, was the biggest concern, he told Asia Focus.

"Roughly two Thai workers have died every month between 2008 and 2013 and there are concerns that some of these deaths may relate to overwork in harsh and sometimes desert-like conditions," he said.

Interviews carried out for the report with 173 Thai workers on 10 farms revealed details of gruelling schedules, working up to 17 or 18 hours a day, seven days a week, with only four days off per year.

"Those cases weren't typical but they weren't exceptional either. ...The main complaints relates to low pay (below the minimum wage) and poor housing," said Mr McGeehan.

Israel's ambassador to Thailand, Simon Roded, said the report contained many distortions and he defended the work by both the Israeli and Thai governments to improve workers' rights (see sidebar).

Preecha Intrachatorn of the Thailand Overseas Employment Administration (TOEA), said the most notable issues affecting Thai workers in Israel included unfair wages, long working hours, and the high number of uninvestigated deaths.

He suspected that some of the deaths could have been related to hazardous chemicals used on farms and others could have been caused by drug overdoses.

"We don't know whether the Israeli employers provided proper clothing and protection or made it mandatory to wear them," he said.

Lacking knowledge about hazardous chemicals, workers may take off their protective gear if it is not mandatory, given the extreme heat in the Middle East.

Mr Preecha added that given the high number of Israeli reports that simply list "unknown cause", Thai authorities were considering sending a Thai autopsy team to the country.

Although Israel has excellent labour laws — some of which are specifically designed to protect foreign workers — many problem persist due to the government's failure to enforce the laws and a culture of impunity among employers, claimed Mr McGeehan of HRW.

"The Israeli government can certainly fix the problems of basic law enforcement and protection of workers' rights that is needed on their farms," he said.

Failure to enforce laws in recipient countries, along with rising concerns about unfair treatment and human rights violations, have driven authorities in some countries to introduce policies that discourage their citizens from working abroad.

For instance, Indonesia recently banned its citizens from working as domestic helpers in 21 countries in the Middle East, despite its heavy reliance on remittances (US$8.3 billion last year).

Although the policy has been criticised as restricting people's right to choose where to work, Indonesia wants to become less dependent on sending workers abroad and to provide more employment opportunities within the country.

"Banning would be our last resort," said Mr Preecha, "but if there is no improvement in tackling these issues and no serious cooperation from the Israeli government, we may limit the number of Thais that will be sent to that country."

He said the TOEA planned talks with Israeli authorities in hopes that they would agree to crack down on problems and address the well-being of Thai migrant workers.

"Without Thai workers, their agricultural business will suffer," he said.

Given the labour shortages worldwide, demand for migrant workforces is rising and countries that used to send a significant number of their population for overseas work have secured more negotiating power.

DRUG DEALS

Many Thai companies are involved in the business of sending migrant workers abroad, and even some senior politicians have visited workers based in Israel.

Democrat Party politician and former finance minister Korn Chatikavanij visited a kibbutz (collective farm) in Israel two years ago. He said the quality of life of the Thai workers there was quite decent.

"Thai workers are very satisfied with their working conditions and they said they wanted to extend their contracts because they wouldn't get these opportunities back home," said Mr Korn. "The typical working contract of kibbutz farmers is around six years."

The bigger issue, however, is related to drugs.

"The major problem is drug smuggling and drug usage which the Israeli authorities have neglected and disregarded for years," he said.

Borvorn Sripaurya, a Democrat Party member and owner of Thai Overseas Manpower Association, a firm that recruits labourers to go to Israel and other countries, said he saw no problems with living conditions of Thai workers in Israel as the government there had highly pro-migrant policies.

"Israeli employers have no control over Thai workers and they are granted too much freedom," he said. "These workers live comfortably — better than they would ever live in Thailand — and they enjoy pay of about 30,000 baht every month.

"The biggest issue there is drugs. ... Out of 26,500 Thai workers in Israel, more than 80% are drug addicts," he claimed. "Thai drug dealers can sell [methamphetamine] for up to 1,000 baht per pill in Israel (three times the street price in Bangkok) — and that is good money."

Mr Preecha said Thai authorities suspected that some Thai drug dealers had become migrant workers and continued their drug businesses as a sideline job once in Israel.

Mr Borvorn said the issue emerged a few years ago after the government amended the Recruitment Act and granted full responsibility to the Labour Ministry for overseas recruitment to major countries.

However, migration to Israel is a very transparent process run by the International Organization for Migration in conjunction with an Israeli non-government organisation, said HRW's Mr McGeehan.

"Israel and Thailand both deserve credit for putting this new system in place in 2011. ... It has dramatically reduced the fees that workers must pay to secure employment, from over $10,000 before to less than $1,000 now," he said.

Although the policy aims to prevent cheating or exploitation of prospective migrants and to curtail illegal migration and unlicensed recruiters, the quality of Thai migrants has dropped significantly.

"Government authorities are unable to perform thorough inspections, resulting in sending unqualified workers abroad," said Mr Borvorn.

Private companies were able to do better background checks and assure that workers are truly qualified, he said.

"This problem is being neglected by authorities of both countries — Thailand and Israel — as they think it's none of their responsibility," he said. "The governments of both countries should be more engaged in cracking down on these issues or else the problematic roots will grow deeper and become very difficult to fix."

About the author

columnist
Writer: Tanyatorn Tongwaranan
Position: Asia Focus Writer