Israel farmers will stage a nationwide strike starting Monday to call attention to severe labor shortages plaguing agriculture. During the 72-hour warning strike, no fruits, vegetables, eggs, milk and fish will be sent out to the markets.
The government has decided on a gradual cut in the number of foreign workers allowed into the country to work in agriculture, but according to the farmers, even the newly reduced quota of 26,000 has not been filled, and only 22,000 to 23,000 foreigners have been working in their fields and hothouses this year. The farmers have lobbied the government to increase the quota to the previous level of 28,000, or at least guarantee that the entire quota of 26,000 is filled.
Farmers in the northern Negev say they've been suffering this year not only from a shortage of workers that has left many fields untended, but also from soaring water quota prices and an increase in incidents of theft.
Benny Amar, owner of the Einav Hovalot trucking and farming company and a large producer and marketer of agricultural produce in the south, says this year has been especially difficult. "I have hothouses and fields where I am simply not growing anything because we have a shortage of foreign workers. At the moment I have 11 workers tending to 500 dunams of crops. I have tried to recruit Israeli workers. There are no such workers left, not even at the excellent wages we offer - NIS 7,000 and even NIS 10,000 [a month]. They aren't coming. Everyone in this country has become an engineer or an executive. There aren't any Israelis left willing to work in hothouses. If there were we would hire them immediately." Even the Israelis he does manage to recruit, he says, aren't particularly skilled and this takes a toll on production.
Itsik Abutbul, one of the biggest farmers in the south, has 12,000 dunam of potatoes. "The situation this year is catastrophic," he says. "I am nearly 20 workers short. I apply to the Employment Bureau and they send me Israelis, but after a few hours, they run away. We farmers feel that everyone up there at the top is against us and no one cares about us." Referring to officials at the Finance Ministry, he says: "The treasury boys don't know what agriculture is at all. This year we've started abandoning our fields. I have 3,000 dunams of hothouses, but because of the labor shortage, I've decided not to grow anything this year."
Abutbul says he proposed holding a demonstration outside the government offices unlimited in time. "We are guarding state lands here so they won't be taken over," he says, hinting at Bedouin encroachment, "and no one cares about us. I've been a farmer since I was 15, and this is our most difficult period. We don't have a leader and nobody is listening."
According to Yair Mena, head of the the largest agricultural company in the country, Moshavei Hanegev Development Company, which handles marketing for 34 moshavim (cooperative villages ), "When the quota of foreign workers drops considerably, like it is now, many farmers simply cut back production. This causes Israelis who work in agriculture to lose their jobs and it causes higher vegetable prices." The slowdown, he says, also affects those on the periphery of farming, like truckers and other providers.
"The situation today is that Israel's glorious agriculture is crumbling," says Mena. "The farmers are being subjected to one decree after another and they simply can't withstand it any longer." The government, he says, doesn't fulfill its side of agreements, such as agreements that were made concerning water quotas, whereas the farmers have upheld their side of all agreements. Even according to the government's own reports, Mena points out, agriculture is short thousands of workers.
If all this weren't enough, he says, farmers in the south are increasingly finding themselves the targets of theft. "Dealing with these thefts," says Mena, "is especially difficult since in agriculture, thefts are not treated like they are in other civilian sectors." In the Negev moshavim, he says, hundreds of thousands of shekels worth of equipment and produce are stolen every year."
According to Amar, "The thefts are a catastrophe. Not a day goes by when a Negev farmer doesn't get a visit from thieves, and not only at night."
He says he would support extending the strike "so that the country understands it's impossible to go on like this. The farmers should boycott anyone who breaks the strike. The strike is for all of us, big and small. It can't be that today a young guy comes along and wants to build hothouses but can't do this because no one wants to work and there aren't any foreign workers. Today I'm growing only half my capacity because there are no workers, and I'm not exporting because I don't have enough workers."
In response, the Population and Immigration Authority at the Interior Ministry says that efforts are under way to increase the number of foreign workers in agriculture but some of the problems arise from the farmers themselves. Aharon Barazani, head of the Foreign Workers Administration at the authority, says an investigation undertaken in March found a shortage of 3,500 foreign workers in agriculture. "We asked the farmers to submit requests so we could supply the full quota," he says, "but it turned out that not all the farmers submitted the requests" on time. The possibility of bringing in foreign workers on a seasonal basis, he said, is being considered.
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