‘Deaf and dumb’ farmers Hamas hostages, whom no one talks about Israeli farms that are fundamental to the economic vitality of the Jewish state, have been employing Palestinian and Thai workers for years. But after the Hamas-led October 7 terrorist attack and the war in Gaza, most Palestinians were expelled from Israel and many frightened Thais chose to return home. But their life in Israel wasn’t always easy

Hamas’ attack on Israeli kibbutzim and the captivity of those who live and work there has left two communities in pain, two distant worlds: Israel and Thailand. Dividing them is a 7,000-kilometer-long expanse of land through which thousands of Thais pass every year, within the route stipulated by a bilateral agreement with Bangkok that Tel Aviv sees as a potential threat to farmers who could replace Palestinian labor.

Israeli farms, which are critical to the economic vitality of the Jewish state, have employed Palestinian and Thai workers for years. But after the Hamas-led terrorist attack on October 7 and the war in Gaza, most Palestinians were expelled from Israel and many frightened Thais returned home, with damage clearly visible in Israel’s agricultural sector. “Israeli agriculture is experiencing its greatest crisis since the state was founded in 1948,” said Yuval Lipkin, deputy director general of the Ministry of Agriculture, who said that at least 15,000 workers left the farms after the start of the war.

Thai-Israeli workers

Farmers chose to abandon fields north and south of the Gaza Strip, which serves as a buffer zone for the Tel Aviv government between Palestinian territory and the state of Israel. Agricultural areas are of vital importance not only for national security but also for the economy. Israel makes heavy use of foreign labor, so much so that nearly 30 thousand foreign workers work in the agricultural sector; the main ones are Thai (23 thousand of them with normal documents, 7 thousand with expired visas) and 9 thousand Palestinians: an army. It is used to do jobs that Israelis no longer want to do, such as planting vegetables, picking fruit, milking cows and keeping bees. At least that was the case before October 7. Minister Lipkin announced that at least 7 thousand Thai workers returned to their country of origin following the Hamas attack. The extent of the presence of the Southeast Asian country’s citizens was revealed when 32 Thai citizens were killed by Hamas terrorists and 25 others were kidnapped and taken as hostages to Gaza. They are men and women who immigrated to Israel to work, send money home and give their families a better chance, even though they found themselves facing unsafe working conditions and sometimes lacking access to medical care.

The beginning of the Thai diaspora

The history of Thais working in fields in Israel dates back decades, when the Tel Aviv government began employing migrant workers in the agricultural sector following the First Intifada (Palestinian uprising of 1987-93) after employers began to lose faith. Palestinian workers. In what has proven to be a strategic decision, Israeli agriculture owes its workforce primarily to Thailand, but there are also several thousand “trainee” farmers from Asia and Africa who are included in the scope of work – curriculum projects. In just a few years, the Thai community in Israel has become increasingly rich, as stories of exploitation, abuse, and violations of personal freedoms mark the working days of Thai workers.

The turning point or initiative for improvement came under pressure from the United States and human rights advocacy organizations, which were alarmed by (several) complaints and led to an improvement in the situation of migrant workers: the channel was launched in 2011 by Tel Aviv and Bangkok in 2013 under the “Thailand” initiative. -It became official with the signing of the “Israeli Labor Placement Cooperation” (TIC). Thus, a corridor was created for Thai workers (who work only in the agricultural sector). Temporary agencies and the UN’s International Organization for Migration manage the recruitment and management of the workforce in Thailand.

Of course, conditions have improved for about 30 thousand Thai immigrants, but they have to pay about $2 thousand to come to the Jewish state and work legally for five years in the hope of earning up to five times the daily income. The salary they receive in Thailand is around 10 dollars. The project does not present any critical problems on paper, but unfortunately they emerge when we analyze the daily conditions of Thai workers. Despite the agreements, there are cases of worker exploitation amounting to slavery, which Human Rights Watch has repeatedly condemned. The NGO, which deals with the protection of human rights, condemned in a 2015 report that workers often live in makeshift and inadequate housing, earn wages significantly lower than the legal minimum wage, and work long hours beyond the maximum allowed by law. Additionally, many workers were denied the right to change employers, according to the report.

workers-thailand-israel

Having all the documents in order does not guarantee an honorable life. Faced with the pressure of travel debt, Thai workers are extending their stay in Israel even as their five-year visas expire. This is not an isolated incident: Thais entering Israel are joining the larger group of 7,000 irregular immigrants, taking advantage of the Israeli authorities’ lack of control. Being disorderly also means losing rights guaranteed by law and bilateral agreements. There is a huge language gap: very few, if not all, Thai people can understand and speak Israelis. Thus, a community that was deaf and could not speak any language other than the language of the country in which they lived was created in the Jewish state. There are few organizations that serve as links between Israeli society and the world of Thai immigrants. This is the case of Kav LaOved, an Israeli group that helps Thai immigrants protect their labor rights and language.

“Deaf and dumb” in Israel

The Israeli organization also highlighted some critical issues in the field of healthcare. “According to the bilateral agreement between Tel Aviv and Bangkok, the employer is obliged to provide almost full-coverage health insurance for each worker,” he explains today.it Miriam Anati from the Outreach and Fundraising department of the Kav LaOved organization. “But these are contractual features. In practice, migrant workers do not have access to healthcare, as noted in one of our 2021 reports,” Anati points out. The problem again relates to the language difference that distinguishes the company from the Thai ones, such as health insurance. Due to the shortage of translators who can speak Thai, immigrants from the Southeast Asian country do not know who to turn to in case of illness. “These agreements can certainly be improved, but we at Kav LaOved support the current agreement between Israel and Thailand, which is at least capable of guaranteeing various rights to Thai workers. Rights that are not granted to all other immigrants who do not fall within a corridor Anati said is a work that is part of a bilateral agreement claims.

Migrant workers who come to Israel from countries with which Tel Aviv has not made agreements, such as India, pay approximately $25,000 to intermediary institutions to obtain residence visas, plane tickets and contracts with their future employers. “This leads to indebtedness on the part of workers, who become vulnerable to all kinds of exploitation once they arrive in Israel,” Anati adds. “One of our condemnations of the Israeli government is the lack of personnel responsible for verifying violations or ensuring that the rights of migrant workers are respected.” The Jewish State therefore does not take independent action to verify workers’ conditions and the existence of human rights violations, but waits for abuse to be reported. However, it does not seem possible to report the case to the authorities due to the language problem that foreign workers face every day. Complaints mostly come from associations such as Kav LaOved, which collect direct testimonies from workers.

Says there are many challenges facing Thai workers in Israel today.it Zohar Shvarzberg is a researcher for the association “Assistance to agricultural workers”, a group of activists and volunteers who have been providing support to Thai immigrants for several years. “Agricultural migrants from Thailand face a very difficult situation as they are away from their families and relatives, doing demanding work for long hours, sometimes in difficult conditions such as hot or rainy weather. Other challenges they face are wage violations,” says Shvarzberg. He explains that the association recently opened a free multilingual switchboard in collaboration with Bar-Ilan University in Tel Aviv to provide translation from Thai to English and Hebrew. Not just. There is also mental and psychological support offered by Chulalongkorn University in Thailand to workers in both Israel and Thailand.

Staying to Win: The Danger of Thais in Israel

The Hamas attack also revealed other contradictions and violations of workers’ rights. Following the war between terrorist militias and Israel, many Thai immigrants working in the agricultural sector returned to the Southeast Asian country thanks to special flights organized by the Thai embassy. As Shvarzberg explained, approximately 8,900 Thai agricultural workers returned to their country after the start of the war. However, there are approximately 20 thousand workers in Israel who remain in Israel and take refuge in safe parts of the country, such as the center of Israel. “After the evacuation was completed, special flights (i.e. flights paid for by the Thai government) were disrupted, but those who wish to return can take one of the regular flights from Tel Aviv to Bangkok,” Shvarzberg notes. Thais make the following statement regarding the hostages held by Hamas: “We know from the media that the Thai government has opened its channels to negotiate with and release Thai citizens captured by Hamas.”

But not all Thais stayed in Israel by personal choice. “Some employers confiscated Thais’ passports, preventing them from leaving Israel,” says Anati. Of course, we are talking about a few cases, but still it is important: confiscating a foreign worker’s passport is a crime in Israel and this is a mandatory requirement in Israel. to be the sole owner of the document”.

However, even in the war environment, the Thais are the ones who gave up leaving Israel, continued to work and earn enough to pay off the debts. The Israeli Ministry of Agriculture plans to extend their work visas and give them $500 per month incentives to avoid losing their workforce. The offer looks attractive compared to the lump sum of about $1,800 the Thai government has provided to help Thais fleeing Israel.

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Source: Today IT

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