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Thailand and the Israeli Labor Market

A Journey through Israel's Agricultural Sector

I

N THE LAST WEEK of April 2007, the Workers Advice Center (WAC-Ma'an) hosted a delegation of European and American labor unions, which it had invited to study exclusion and exploitation in Israel's agricultural sector. The basic concept was similar to that of the delegation we hosted in construction in 2004.

We described the situation to the delegates in four points:

1. The arrangements for importing farm workers from Thailand distort the labor market. They toil at a low wage under conditions of bondage, against international conventions. Their availability and exploitability put local Arab workers at a competitive disadvantage.

2. The participation rate of Arab women in Israel's labor force is extremely low (18% as compared with 56% among Jewish women). Many more want to work in order to lift their families out of the poverty cycle. The agricultural sector, which once employed thousands of these women, is shut in their faces because of the foreign workers. Their exclusion perpetuates a conservative life style that keeps them financially dependent on—and subjugated to—their husbands.

3. At the bottom of the ladder are the Palestinian farm workers from the Occupied Territories. Over them hangs the stigma of "security threat." In order to get a job, they must accept conditions even worse than those of the Thais. Many Palestinian children do farm work to save their families from starvation.

4. Government policy in this area zigzags. A recent program spoke of cutting the number of foreign workers and encouraging Arab women, as well as ultra-orthodox Jewish women, to go out to work. The government also moved toward letting the International Organization for Migration (IOM) supervise procedures for the importation of workers. Yet permits were recently granted to bring in 3000 farm laborers from Thailand in addition to the 26,000 already here, and the government has retreated from its intention to sign an agreement with the IOM.

After putting these points before the delegation, we spent a week with it, visiting farmers and farm workers, government ministries and committees, the Histadrut, Palestinian labor unions, NGOs defending workers' rights, academics, and the Thai embassy, winding up at WAC's outdoor May Day celebration in the heart of Tel Aviv.

The delegates hailed from Thailand, Spain, Germany, the US and the West Bank.* The participation of Junya Lek Yimprasert (“Lek”), a leader in the Thai Labor Campaign (TLC), was especially significant. It demonstrated the principle of solidarity among the workers whom capital tries to divide. "I came here," Lek said, "to study the faces behind the Israeli-Palestinian conflict. The problem is basically one of class. The same tasks that Thai workers perform here in Israel are done in Thailand by two million Burmese. Because of a political conflict between Thailand and Burma [Myanmar], the Burmese workers are exploited and discriminated against, and we fight for their rights."

The Spanish delegates, Cecilia Sanz and Antonio Perianes of the Confederación Sindical de Comisiones Obreras (CCOO), taught us that where a strong union exists, a different approach is feasible: "When a district in Spain needs farm workers," explained Sanz, who directs CCOO's agricultural branch, "we invite four factors to a round table: the district government, the farm owners, the labor union and the towns that will be affected. We ensure that local workers get the first crack at the available jobs. Only then, if there are still places open, do we invite workers from abroad—without mediation fees or excessive commissions."

The exploitation of the globe's economic periphery, which causes millions to leave their families in search of precarious jobs abroad, is at the root of the anarchy in Israel's agricultural sector. Until recently the situation was similar in construction, but a tough government policy has reduced the number of import permits in this sector (partly as a result of WAC's efforts) from 45,000 in 2001 to the present 12,000. As a result, thousands of Arabs have returned to the scaffolds, despite protests by building contractors who prefer the cheap labor from distant lands.

Wafa Tayara, a WAC organizer, told the delegation: "We want solidarity with workers everywhere. We are not against the Thais, but we are against the methods by which they are brought here and exploited. Yet we cannot accept a situation where, because they agree to work under miserable conditions, they reduce our bargaining power in the labor market. We demand equal conditions for all, the Thais as well as the locals."

We present some high points from the delegation's journey.

The Ministry of Agriculture

Taniv Rofeh, Assistant Director of the Agriculture Ministry's Research Department, told the delegation:
"Toward the end of the 1980's, farmers understood that they couldn't rely on Palestinian workers because of the closures. They began to seek other solutions. The Arab population inside Israel continued to be available.

"In the early 90's, the moshav movement selected Thailand for a solution to the labor shortage. At that time there were no government quotas. Only as we approached the year 2000 did we see a need to formalize the process. By then the idea had taken root that the Thais are good, industrious workers, loyal to their employer. As a result, the demand for them increased.

"The government decided to allot foreign workers to each farm according to its needs. The Ministry of Agriculture decided on criteria for calculating the quota each farmer would get. The actual allotments, though, must take into account the number of permits approved by the government. The need is for about 44,000 workers, but we have to make do with less. We allot to each farmer fewer than he really needs."

Rofeh stressed that her ministry refers the labor-hungry farmers to WAC. Spanish delegate Antonio Perianes said in response: "It seems to me that you proceed as we do in Spain, but with us there is first consultation with the unions about how many foreign workers can be employed, whereas here you first decide with the farmers, and only afterwards do you turn to WAC to fix the problem."

Rami Cohen, Farmer

Rami Cohen is typical of farmers who work with WAC but also hire Thais. "We have here a thousand dunams of orchards [ca. 250 acres—RBE] as well as a packing house—and more. We need a great many hands, depending on the season. The maximum can reach 60 laborers. We work with WAC in the packing house, and it helps us find people. The quota allows me 15 Thais. The work in the orchards and fields is suited to the Thais. They are better at it, so I prefer to use them when possible."

Lek: “Are you aware that they have to pay $8000 before arriving in Israel, which means going into debt, and they have to work years to repay?"

Cohen: "From my perspective, I can do only what I can do. I know that there's a problem before I come into the picture and after I leave it. For that reason I try not to know everything, and this helps me do best what I do in my part of the time frame. If I could receive Thai workers who didn't have to pay such fees, I'd be happy to do so. But this is not what I deal with. The only thing that matters to me is that they should work well."

Assaf Adiv, WAC's National Coordinator: "We are standing five minutes from the West Bank. What's your experience with Palestinian workers?"

Cohen: "In the present situation, I am very disappointed with the workers from Gaza and the West Bank, and I don't even want to begin to think about hiring them. I'm afraid of them. Even when they've gone through all the security checks to get here, they are less scared of me or the police or the army than they are of the people who are waiting for them back home. So if one of them decides to harm us, he will. I'm not willing to endanger myself, my people or my business. I understand that they aren't necessarily guilty, but my first concern must be myself."

What you won't hear from a Thai worker

At several farms visited by the delegation, Lek tried to involve the Thai workers in conversation. They were cautious. Most said at first that everything was fine. As the talk went on, however, a few agreed to open up. It emerged that in order to reach Israel, they had each paid between $6000 and $9000 in mediation fees. Their wage amounts to 13 NIS per hour (about $3, two-thirds of the legal minimum). Given living expenses and interest, it will take them about two years of labor just to repay the money they borrowed in order to come.

We learned further details from Anat Gonen, who is responsible for the agricultural sector in Kav la'Oved (Woker's Hotline). Also to her, she said, they fear to complain.

"The Thai worker gets his salary only after a delay of three months. This keeps him from leaving his employer. Officially he makes the minimum wage of $5 per hour, but if we take account of the fact that he works from 13 to 15 hours per day, the actual salary falls far below that. The boss generally keeps two sets of books, one real and one official, so that if an inspector should happen to come, everything looks fine. On days when the weather is too bad for work, the Thai gets nothing. He is also subject to human trafficking. Since every farmer gets a quota, a farmer who has no need of a worker sells part of his quota to another farmer. But because the Thai is bound to a specific farmer whose name appears in his passport, if he's caught working for a different one, the one who bought him, he is liable to be deported. He then loses his ability to repay his debt.

"You're probably wondering what happened to law enforcement. Where, in all this, is the Ministry of Industry, Trade and Labor? They generally accept what the employer tells them. And suppose they ask the worker? It is doubtful whether he would tell them the truth. Fear is in charge.

"In addition to all that, the Thais live in crowded conditions, without hot water, sometimes without beds, two showers for as many as 40, and abominable toilet facilities. The bosses hold the health-insurance policies, and sometimes they prevent the workers from making claims. A worker injured on the job will say that he fell in the shower. Some of their tasks involve handling pesticides, often without protection, and it's hard to get information about the chemicals."

In conclusion, Gonen says, "Just as the State of Israel subsidizes the cost of water for Israeli farms, so too it subsidizes the cost of labor. Now," she said to the delegation, "do you see why Israelis don't work in agriculture? They can't compete with people earning much less than the minimum wage."

Where is the Histadrut?

We met with three officials from the Histadrut (the General Federation of Israeli Trade Unions). They were Gershon Gelman, secretary of the Tel Aviv Workers' Council for the last 15 years, who established the Histadrut's Department for Foreign Workers; Haggai Herzl, who handles the problems of these workers; and Freddie Cohen, General Secretary of the Farm Workers' Union.

Gelman explained that, officially, the existing collective agreement in agriculture applies by extension to all farm workers. This has no practical effect, however, as long as the law is not enforced, so that farmers can avoid applying the agreement to the Thais, as well as the Arabs. "Last July, I met the Thai Minister of Labor in Bangkok. We proposed to forge an agreement that would protect Thai workers in Israel. I then met with his Israeli counterpart, Eli Ishai, who favored the initiative. I also met MK Ran Cohen—great guy!— who heads the Knesset Committee for Foreign Workers. We want to establish a law by which every foreign worker, from the day he sets foot on Israeli soil, will be protected by the union. This isn't easy, because of many interests, but I hope it will soon take effect. Of course we cannot accept the idea that in order to come and work here, people must pay so much money, but we aren't the ones who decide on that. That occurs in their own countries, China, Thailand or the Philippines."

"More sobering," adds Haggai Herzl, "is what the governments of Thailand and the Philippines told us: 'You may violate the law in all that concerns the workers. Give them less than minimum wage, only let them keep coming for jobs." I am very proud that we did not agree to that. I know WAC, and I know they work hard to place workers in jobs, and in some cases they even succeed. But in the past I headed the police force's Migration Department–" (Gelman breaks in: "He was the bad guy and I turned him into the good guy") "–and I always tried to persuade the government that we don't need foreigners because we have enough workers among Arabs. I'll tell you the honest truth: they bring workers in because of the big money they make in the process of importing them. There are manpower agencies acting illegally."

Assaf Adiv: "I want to shift the subject to the Palestinian workers. The delegation met several groups of workers who have very hard problems, involving magnetic cards and permits. There are people who worked dozens of years in Jerusalem hospitals and old age homes; now they're locked out of the city. What does the Histadrut do about this?"

RBE: "We've also heard very upsetting testimonies from Palestinians who work for Israelis in the Territories, in Mishor Adumim for instance. They earn five or six shekels an hour. They live under threats of fines."

Gelman: "That is upsetting, but because the territory is under Jordanian law, it's beyond the reach of Israeli labor law."

RBE: "But those bosses receive a great many benefits from the Israeli government, so there is a way to put pressure on them."

Gelman: "It's a constitutional question. Let's face it. Dov Lautman, a winner of the Israel Prize, transferred his factories to Jordan."

The Ministry of Industry, Trade and Labor

The man in this ministry who holds all the data is Shalom Ben Moshe. He heads the unit dealing with foreign workers:

"The present policy of the government is to make a gradual reduction in the number of foreign workers, so that by 2010 there will be none in construction. I do not expect a reduction in agriculture, though. On the contrary, we now have a decision to increase the number. As part of this decision, however, the State demands that the agricultural employers present a plan for hiring more Israeli workers.

"In my view, the gravest problem is the phenomenon of mediation fees, which in agriculture reach $7000-$8000 for the right to work in Israel. All that money is illegal, black market. Those who take part in it are companies in the countries from which the workers come, including Thailand, as well as all sorts of factors in Israel. They divide the spoils and do very well for themselves.

"Until not long ago, the employer was permitted to hold the worker's passport. This has gradually changed, and it will stop altogether this year. We are changing the whole system of employing foreigners in Israel. The worker will no longer be registered under the name of the employer. The one thing that will appear in his passport will be the branch he is to work in. In this way he'll be able to change employers freely, without fear of deportation.

"As for our war against the extortion of fees, which is a very grave crime, we are seeking a way, through the International Organization for Migration (IOM), to put order into the procedures for importing foreign workers. We want to ensure that the fee will not exceed the amount permitted under Israeli law, which is 3050 NIS per worker ($763). In Thailand they are ready for this in principle, although there are hesitations. In Israel too there is opposition from people who stand to lose a lot of money.

"To sum up, I foresee that the difficult situation of the foreign workers will soon improve significantly, and I hope the government will persist in its official policy of encouraging Israeli workers, especially in agriculture and construction."

Thailand's Ambassador to Israel

Kasivat Paruggamanont, the Thai ambassador, received us at his embassy in Tel Aviv. The serene countenances of the king and queen in the portraits above him contrasted sharply with his own:

"I've been working in this position more than four years now. Before that I was the consul in Chicago. All my life I've worked in the Foreign Office. I never had to deal with the topic of workers. Today it takes much of my time."

He too thinks that the problem is the mediation fees. "Thai and Israeli companies divide the money between them. Between 70% and 80% of the fees goes into the pockets of Israeli firms as payment for the permits, which they buy from the farmers [who received them from the government] for $1000-$2000 each. There are more than thirty such firms in Israel. In this way, Israeli personnel companies wind up with the lion's share of the money. It's absurd! We would expect the farmer to pay the personnel company for its service in providing workers, but the contrary is the case: the personnel companies compete with each other to buy the permits from the farmers, each company bribing them at a higher price. We stand helpless. Both on leaving Thailand and on entering Israel, the workers conceal the fact that they paid such sums.

"The problem, then, is complicated. We have no proofs that would enable us to take action against the companies, because the workers won't admit to paying more than $3000: this is the amount permitted in Thailand, and it's supposed to cover the airline ticket, the visa, and the first two years of insurance.

"In 2006, at the last meeting we had on the subject, we proposed to work out an agreement between governments, but Israel refused. Its Foreign Ministry isn't willing to discuss it with me. I don't know why. [Israel's Foreign Ministry was also the only body that refused to meet the delegation—RBE.]

"There is indeed progress in contacts with the IOM, but I've heard through informal channels that the Israeli side is trying to bury the idea. If such an agreement comes about, it will lower the amounts the workers pay. It is certainly conceivable that the private companies in Thailand and Israel oppose an arrangement that would lower their profits."

The delegation discovered a reality, confirmed by all parties, that requires immediate change. Its members adopted a list of recommendations, including these:

1. The Israeli and Thai governments have been negotiating an agreement that will end the huge admission fees paid by Thai workers who travel to Israel. It is the responsibility of both governments, through their employment offices, to take control of this process, guaranteeing that this new type of slave trade is stopped and that workers' rights are not violated.

2. We shall involve other farm laborers' unions worldwide, especially in areas where Israeli farm products are sold, to end the violation of workers' rights in Israel's agricultural sector. Israel must be pressured to abide by the international conventions concerning migrant workers.

3. We see ourselves as forerunners of a more widely representative delegation of farm workers' unions, which will mobilize the huge moral and political clout of the international labor movement. "end"

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