farmers - Eliyahu Hershkowitz - November 23 2010
Growers from the south of the country blocking the Sdot Negev Junction in protest of a paucity of foreign field hands. Photo by Eliyahu Hershkowitz
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The growers' campaign against cuts to the quota of foreign farm hands escalated Monday, as over 100 farmers blocked junctions across the country, including Netivot, Achituv, Achva, Re'em, Mahanaim and the Roman Bridge junction in Beit She'an.

MK Miri Regev (Likud ) arrived at the protest in Netivot to express solidarity with the farmers.

The protests marked the beginning of a declared three-day strike, aimed at pressuring the government into agreeing to bring 4,000 more Thai workers to work in agriculture. Just before noon, the wholesale market in Tzrifin shut down, closing off the main supply route of fresh agricultural produce to markets, grocers and supermarkets in much of Israel.

Consumers are expected to experience shortages over the next two days, although greengrocers and supermarket chains have been stocking produce to soften the blow.

The supply cuts by the farmers will include fruits, vegetables, fresh fish, milk, eggs and poultry. The organizations believe that the produce shortages will lead to a temporary prices hike, but most observers said the raise in prices will be minor to marginal.

Although farmers in the Negev told Haaretz they were abandoning fields and crops because of the Interior Ministry's insistence not to expand the quota, one farmer had a different perspective.

"I don't know why we're demonstrating - the ones losing out are the consumers, who are spending a lot more money. They should demonstrate, we're making a profit."

Avshalom Vilan, chairman of the Israel Farmers Federation, said yesterday that the growers are demanding an increase in the quota in accordance with an agreement with the government, which stipulates the number of Thai workers employed in agriculture will be raised from 22,000 to 26,000.

"Israeli workers are unwilling to work in agriculture for the minimum wage," Vilan said. "Nor do they last in agricultural work for long."

He said that apart from expanding the quota, the farmers are demanding the levy imposed on farmers for employing a migrant worker be canceled. The levy stands at 10 percent of the worker's salary.

Treasury sources said the number of migrant workers should be reduced rather than expanded. They said advanced machinery should be introduced, to allow the employment of Israelis in the field.

The next meeting between the treasury, Agriculture Ministry and farmers group has been scheduled for tomorrow, the last day of the strike, and is expected to affect the anticipated shortages or possible price hikes.

"Our area has no substitute for migrant workers," chairman of the agricultural committee in the northern Arava, Chaim Rivlin, told Haaretz. "An Israeli needs to travel 90 minutes each way if he wants to work in the Arava communities, so this is impractical. If we're not allowed to employ as many Thai workers as we need, we won't be able to make a living, and Israeli agriculture will be destroyed."