Israel's Health Ministry to Probe Into Deaths of Thai Farmers

Ministry's regulations for the safe handling of pesticides are not properly enforced when foreign workers are concerned.

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A Thai agriculture worker. MK Dov Khenin questions their working conditions and medical care.
A Thai agriculture worker. MK Dov Khenin questions their working conditions and medical care. Credit: Eyal Toueg

A human rights organization filed some 40 complaints last year with the Economy Ministry on behalf of foreign workers who said they were exposed to pesticides without any proper protection or receiving training on their use.

The ministry said it receives some 10 to 15 complaints a year on safety and health issues concerning foreign workers in agriculture. The ministry’s unit for occupational safety and health employs some 20 inspectors responsible for the agricultural sector all over the country. A ministry official said the heavy load on the inspectors does not allow them to investigate or enforce regulations in any substantive fashion.

In the last three years the Interior Ministry’s Population and Immigration Authority has not revoked the right of a single employer of foreign workers for safety reasons. The authority says it has never received any information from the Economy Ministry on such matters.

After Haaretz reported last Friday that 122 farm laborers from Thailand have died in Israel over the last five years, a third of whom died of what is called “sudden nocturnal death syndrome” which affects young and healthy Asian men, the Health Ministry announced Sunday that it would examine if this is an exceptional number compared to other countries.

The complaints the Kav LaOved organization for the protection of foreign workers’ rights sent to the Economy Ministry are based on visits conducted by its members at moshavim and kibbutzim, and mostly concern workers from Thailand. The complaints reveal a pattern of violations: “The employee works in the framework of his job in spraying, which requires training, but the employer has never trained him how to carry out his job in a protected manner and the worker is forced to provide gloves and a face mask for himself,” states one complaint.

In another complaint, which relates to 15 workers in a moshav in the northern Negev, “they use pesticides on a weekly basis, on average for 12 hours a week. The workers have never received training and were required to buy for themselves cloth masks to protect themselves from the chemical materials. No protective materials were supplied to them.”

The Economy Ministry has strict regulations and standards for such work with pesticides and herbicides. The ministry conducts investigations in response to specific complaints but there are not enough inspectors, said an official. Another Economy Ministry official said they know very well that there is a problem, and there is not enough enforcement.

A spokesperson for Kav LaOved said the ministry sometimes replies that it is examining or dealing with the complaints the organization files, and sometimes it does not even respond. The organization also occasionally sends letters to the regional councils where the foreign workers are employed, and often receives no response, said Noa Schauer, who deals with agricultural workers at Kav LaOved.

The Economy Ministry said that in addition to occupational health and safety inspectors in agriculture, the Israel Institute for Occupational Safety and Hygiene provides training on farms and helps locate risks. Regarding the death figures for foreign agricultural workers, the Economy Ministry says it does not know of any connection between the data and the matter of occupational health and safety, but would help in the examination of the matter to learn if occupational issues helped contribute to the phenomenon.

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