Under the warm afternoon sun, Mordechai Okert of Moshav Megadim, a semi-cooperative farming community in the Hof Carmel region, stands supervising his four Thai workers as they sort organically grown red peppers. His words and hand signals are clear evidence of the communication breakdown.
"You come peppers," he said in broken Hebrew to Kong Kao, who has been working in Israel for four years but still doesn't speak Hebrew.
"They understand a little Hebrew and I speak a little Thai, as I've been to Thailand several times," says Okert, whose attempts at communicating with Kong Kao in both Hebrew and English are fruitless. "'I love you, I miss you'" is all [the English] he knows," Okert adds, and the two men laugh.
Farms in the Hof Carmel region employ around 400 Thai workers, so the regional council has decided that instead of trying to teach the workers Hebrew, it will subsidize Thai language courses for the farmers.
"There have already been tragedies in which Thai workers were killed or seriously injured because they did not understand instructions or proper procedures for using pesticides and farm machinery," says Eli Cohen-Mugrabi, who heads the farmers' representation on the council and came up with the idea of Israelis learning Thai.
"The language difficulty is obvious, so we decided to team up with the Berlitz language school to teach the farmers Thai. The workers only know a few words such as 'boss' and 'cash money,' so their employers have begun speaking to them in broken Hebrew," says Cohen-Mugrabi. "Also, the Thais cannot stay in Israel more than six years, so by the time they learn Hebrew, they have to go back to Thailand."
The head of the Hof Carmel council, Carmel Sela, says the course is bound to improve relations between labor and management.
"Without them we could not produce the yields we are achieving today," says Sela. "They work well and have a very high work ethic, and it's important to us to improve our communication with them. Learning a language also includes learning customs, mentalities and their festivals, which are very important."
Okert adds: "The course will help us to communicate better in their language, which may also give them the feeling that they are helping us here and are not slaves." He says this while continuing to sort peppers alongside Kao. "Tamme gan, tamme gan - work, work, in Thai," he says.
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