A long way from home – Isaan villagers’ experience of farmwork in Israel

Since the early 1990s, tens of thousands of Northeastern Thais have left their farms at home to work as agricultural laborers in Israel, often facing exploitation by manpower agencies and employers. Despite a recent push to improve the working conditions of Thai farmworkers in Israel, their situation often remains precarious.

GUEST EDITORIAL by Matan Kaminer

A Thai farmworker sits in his bedroom in the residential area of a farm in Moshav Yavetz in central Israel. Photo credit: Shiraz Grinbaum / Activestills.org

A Thai farmworker sits in his bedroom in the residential area of a farm in Moshav Yavetz in central Israel. Photo credit: Shiraz Grinbaum / Activestills.org

Over 22,000 migrant workers, mostly from Isaan, are at work on farms in Israel. Although they are but a small percentage of the total number of Isaan villagers who migrate to work abroad, the Israeli agricultural sector has become completely dependent on their labor.

In some rural settlements, Thais now outnumber Israelis, and in modern Hebrew tailandi has become almost a synonym for “farmworker.” Though wages in Israel are much higher than those in Thailand, workers’ labor rights are often violated and living conditions are sometimes atrocious, as has been documented by Israeli NGO “Workers’ Hotline” and the international organization Human Rights Watch.

I interviewed three Isaan villagers who have worked in Israel about their migrant experience. Though the durations of their stays in Israel are spread over two decades, the picture they present is in some ways very similar: the work is hard and one pays a personal price for going abroad for so long. At the same time, working in Israel has enabled our interviewees to achieve financial goals that would have been impossible otherwise.

However, my three interviewees differed greatly in some aspects of their experience – demonstrating that much depends on the particular farm on which one happens to be employed when in Israel.

Thai laborers on a cabbage field on a farm at the Israel-Gaza border. Photo credit: Oren Ziv / Activestills.org

Thai laborers on a cabbage field on a farm at the Israel-Gaza border. Photo credit: Oren Ziv / Activestills.org

Large-scale labor migration from Thailand to Israel began around 1993, when the Israeli government took steps to end the massive participation of Palestinian workers in the labor market. These workers, coming from the occupied territories of the West Bank and Gaza Strip, were judged to be too rebellious following the Palestinian Intifada (uprising) of 1987-1991, and plans were made to replace them with workers from developing countries. The government began allowing farmers to recruit workers from Thailand, and they quickly became the majority of workers employed on Israeli farms.

Until 2012, in order to obtain work in Israel a Thai laborer would have to contract with a local manpower agency in Thailand. This agency would connect with a manpower agency in Israel , and the worker would then be eligible to receive a visa for a five-year work contract. Careful to prevent the possibility of workers settling in Israel permanently, Israeli authorities limited each worker to one five-year work period, and disallowed married couples from being in the country at the same time.

Manpower agencies charged workers exorbitant fees, ranging up to 370,000 baht. Workers would often spend their first year in Israel working off the debts incurred in order to pay this fee.

In 2012, the Israeli and Thai governments signed a bilateral agreement aimed at cutting out the middlemen who were charging migrants these exorbitant fees, replacing Thai manpower agencies with the International Organization for Migration, a non-profit intergovernmental group. Today the problem of exorbitant fees has been become less severe and migrants pay around 75,000 baht, which go to the IOM and manpower agencies on the Israeli side.

A residential structure used by Thai farmworkers in Sde Nitzan at the Israeli border to Egypt. Photo credit: Shiraz Grinbaum / Activestills.org

A residential structure used by Thai farmworkers in Sde Nitzan at the Israeli border to Egypt. Photo credit: Shiraz Grinbaum / Activestills.org

However, many other problems associated with migrant life continue. A report recently released by Human Rights Watch found that workers are subject to dangerous and unhygienic living conditions, extremely long working hours, and substandard medical care.

Officially, Thai migrants in Israel are protected by Israeli labor laws, including those regulating the minimum wage and overtime hours. However, a study conducted by myself and Noa Shauer of the Israeli non-governmental organization Kav La’oved (Workers Hotline) found that in 2013, none of the migrants who reported their work conditions to the organization were paid according to the law. Their average wage for regular hours stood at around 70% of the legal minimum. Overtime for work of more than ten hours a day, which is quite common in the agricultural sector, was paid at only 55% of the legal requirement. Human Rights Watch reached similar conclusions.

Thai migrant workers’ weak negotiation position in Israel is in part due to the “bound” nature of their employment. Clauses in their contracts, as well as their linguistic isolation and lack of acquaintance with the country, make it very difficult for workers to change employers’ behavior.

A Thai agricultural worker in his residency in Moshav Yavetz, Israel. The small caravan holds eight beds, separated by curtains and closets. Photo credit: Shiraz Grinbaum / Activestills.org

A Thai agricultural worker in his residency in Moshav Yavetz, Israel. The small caravan holds eight beds, separated by curtains and closets. Photo credit: Shiraz Grinbaum / Activestills.org

Thus, even when migrant workers are aware of the substandard nature of the conditions of their employment, there is little they can do to improve their situation. Many migrants say that the working conditions, together with the long hours and sadness of missing home and family, are behind the prevalence of alcohol and drug abuse among workers.

Some point to drug and alcohol abuse as a possible factor behind the nocturnal deaths of workers, known in Thai as lai tai. These mysterious deaths are also known in Isaan, and some consider them to be caused by evil spirits such as phi mae mai or “widow ghosts.”

Between 2008 and 2013, 43 Thai men perished this way in Israel, yet there has been no systematic investigation into their cause of death. The lack of interest displayed by the Israeli authorities in this case is symptomatic of the general lack of public or state concern for migrant workers’ welfare.

While the workers I spoke to corroborated many of the findings mentioned above, they spoke of the experience of working in Israel as a generally positive one. They said the work enabled them to acquire property and make other monetary gains in life that otherwise they could not have achieved.

The first of my interviewees, Joe – a pseudonym – in his forties, lives in a village near Chumphae in Khon Kaen province. He received us on the ceramic-tile floor of his two-story house and later took us to a field where he grows sugarcane – a field bought with money he earned while working in Israel in the 1990s.

Joe’s distant relatives, Maew and Jaey (also pseudonyms), live in a village in Udon Thani province that has sent many workers to Israel over the years. Their stories exemplify the wide variety of working conditions found in Israel.

A Thai farmworker shows a small notebook displaying his working hours in Moshav Ahituv. Thai farmworkers are advised to keep track of their working time and the payments received from their employers. Photo credit: Shiraz Grinbaum / Activestills.org

A Thai farmworker shows a small notebook displaying his working hours in Moshav Ahituv. Thai farmworkers are advised to keep track of their working time and the payments received from their employers. Photo credit: Shiraz Grinbaum / Activestills.org

Maew, also in her forties, worked on a farm in the hyper-arid Jordan Valley, near Jericho in the occupied Palestinian territories. She worked up to 14 hours a day tending vegetables in greenhouses and made between 35,000 and 45,000 baht a month, of which she was able to save about 25,000 to send home to her family. In employing her for such long hours for such low pay (by Israeli standards), her employers violated the local minimum wage law and possibly other laws as well.

Maew’s younger relative Jaey made the same wages, but working only six hours a day milking cows near Acre in Israel’s north, in proximity to urban centers and in a much milder climate zone.

One cause for the difference may be the fact that Maew worked on a moshav or collective settlement, and Jaey on a kibbutz or communal settlement; the latter tend to be both wealthier and more committed to the historic humanistic values of the Israeli “labor settlement” movement.

The co-existence of such huge disparities in labor and wage conditions is clearly an effect of the “bound” employment regime. If workers could freely choose whom to work for, conditions would undoubtedly equalize, with better results for workers like Maew.

A female Thai farmworker picks pomegranates on a farm in Sde Nitzan,Israel. Photo credit: Shiraz Grinbaum for Activestills.org

A female Thai farmworker picks pomegranates on a farm in Sde Nitzan,Israel. Photo credit: Shiraz Grinbaum for Activestills.org

Although she is aware of these disparities, Maew did not react to them with anger or indignation. She told me that she was glad of the opportunity to work long hours and make as much money as possible to send home, and did not see the fact that her relative Jaey had made the same amount of money working about half the hours as unjust.

Maew and Jaey also touched upon another interesting and troubling issue. They told me that villagers in the area who had worked in Israel were approached by lawyers claiming that they could get access to Israeli “tax refunds” for them.

According to Maew, hundreds of locals had signed papers for these lawyers but none had seen any money. Their story corroborates reports of Israeli lawyers representing Thai workers to sue the employers for severance pay – another legal requirement that is often unheeded.

The NGOs are worried that these lawyers may be engaged in unscrupulous practices vis-à-vis their clients – a concern that Maew’s story seems to strengthen, as villagers signed up and never heard anything back or received any money, and as they may have been misinformed as to the nature of the legal proceedings.

Thai workers on a tractor on the way to start their working day in the early morning. Photo credit: Shiraz Grinbaum / Activestills.org

Thai workers on a tractor on the way to start their working day in the early morning. Photo credit: Shiraz Grinbaum / Activestills.org

Labor migration is a global phenomenon, linking countries across the world in a chain of human movement that embodies both opportunity and exploitation. The workers I spoke to – who did not know me well and may have hesitated to be completely forthright – spoke of working in Israel as, overall, a positive experience.

Yet even this must be understood against the background of the alternative – either going to work elsewhere in Thailand or abroad, where conditions and pay are often worse, or being mired in unemployment and poverty back home in Isaan.

Compared to some of their neighbors, those villagers who are given the opportunity to do backbreaking work for below-minimum pay, thousands of kilometers from home, for years on end, may be the lucky ones.

Matan Kaminer is a Ph.D student in anthropology at the University of Michigan. His research is on Thai migrant farmworkers in Israel. Additional reporting and translation by Disaraporn Phalapree.

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