'Mysterious Syndrome' Claims Lives of Dozens of Thai Farm Workers in Israel

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

According to numbers provided by Minister of Health Yael German to MK Dov Khenin (Hadash), 122 farm laborers from Thailand died in Israel between 2008 and 2013.

Forty-three of them died from what is termed “sudden nocturnal death syndrome,” which affects young and healthy Asian men. This cause of death was twice as common as death due to complications of cardiac disease, which is one of the leading causes of death in Israel. The youngest laborer to die was 23 years old and the oldest was 42. The average age of the laborers who died was 35.

The data, published here for the first time, also show that there were five cases of suicide and four cases of murder in this period. In 22 cases (almost 20 percent of the total) there were no postmortems, so the cause of death could not be established. The data relates only to Thai workers, although other nationals also work in agriculture, albeit in far smaller numbers.

The Abu Kabir Forensic Institute is the agency responsible for postmortems, based on requests made by different investigative authorities. In this context Minister German wrote that “in cases in which there is no family consent or a court order, the institute does not conduct a postmortem. Frequently this happens when there is no request by the police to conduct one, so the family or courts are not contacted.”

Khenin says that “it is inconceivable that so many healthy young men die without alarms going off. These numbers call for a thorough investigation which should include looking into working conditions under which these laborers are employed. Foreign workers are also human beings, and their lives and health should be taken seriously.”

In some of the deaths it appears that employers and employment agencies are only too happy to rush and embrace the “sudden nocturnal death syndrome” as a force majeure explanation which cannot be prevented.

One such example was Nomphai Phromyalee, a 40-year-old man from a small village from northeastern Thailand who died last Saturday at Soroka Medical Center in Be’er Sheva. Phromyalee came to Israel in December 2012 and went to work on a farm owned by Zvi Lichtenstein in the moshav (collective farm) of Hatzeva in the Arava. The farm grows peppers and tomatoes. In peak season, which can last from November to March, work days are 15 hours long, whereas in quieter months the workday lasts for 9-10 hours.

One of the laborers related that last February Phromyalee began to complain of pain, of being cold and too weak to work. “The last time we saw him at work he was too weak to stand up. We saw that the employer was very angry. At first he told him to continue working but after a few days he sent him to his room, but apparently didn’t pay him,” he said.

In early March Phromyalee was transferred to another farm in Hatzeva, which grows flowers. He told other Thai workers that he felt great fatigue, and that he’d asked the former employer for a rest and sick leave but the employer refused. He was also refused permission to see a doctor. After working for a day or two he became very pale and started vomiting. The workers at both farms are reluctant to identify themselves.

Another source who is familiar with the events says that Phromyalee was taken to a doctor last week, and was rapidly transferred to Soroka last Thursday. He arrived there in a state of shock, with extremely low blood pressure and hemoglobin levels. He failed to respond to treatment and died on Saturday night. His body will be flown to Thailand next week.

His first employer, Lichtenstein, said he is “unaware of any request to see a doctor. This is not possible since they all have HMO cards and can go see a doctor whenever they need to.”

He does not know what led to Phromyalee’s death and suggests asking the hospital. When the workers were asked how Lichtenstein related to the death they said that he commented that there was nothing that could have been done. This is what the employment agency representative said as well. “Perhaps it’s like crib death. Sometimes they go to sleep and die before morning. One can’t tell”, she said.

Phromyalee’s official cause of death may never be known, but the testimonies of his coworkers highlight the need to increase supervision over the medical treatment these workers are entitled to. This topic keeps cropping up during visits by Kav LaOved, a voluntary organization that look after foreign workers, along with complaints about living and work conditions.

“We encounter numerous problems related to medical care,” says Noa Schauer, who deals with agricultural workers at Kav LaOved. “Despite substantial payments to insurance companies most of the workers do not receive the HMO cards and are not aware of their right to go to a clinic or hospital. They are totally dependent on their employers if they wish to leave the farm. Many workers said that they don’t want to complain of illness since they worry about being fired. In addition, they don’t get paid for sick days so they prefer working rather than seeking help.”

Schauer has encountered laborers “who order painkillers from Thailand since they can’t get to a pharmacy in an adjacent town on a day it is open. On another moshav some workers told us that they never get the time to go to a clinic even though they know its location. Even if they go, how can they explain their problem? The state brings these workers in a regulated manner but does not give them free and equal access to medical services.”

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