Israel Cuts Thai Interpreters From Health Ministry Translation Services

Health Ministry cites budgetary restrictions.

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Thai workers tending a farm in Israel.
Thai workers tending a farm in Israel. Credit: Eliyahu Hershkovitz
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The Health Ministry is not going to add Thai interpreters to the hotline that supplies translation services for patients due to “a lack of an appropriate budget.” That was the ministry’s response to the chairman of the Knesset Committee on Foreign Workers, MK Michal Rosin, who requested this service in May during a hearing devoted to the deaths of foreign agricultural workers, particularly those from Thailand. At the end of 2013 there were some 20,000 Thai workers in Israel, most of whom do not have full access to health services.

The Knesset committee hearing came following a story in Haaretz about the deaths of 120 Thai workers between 2008 and mid-2013. About a third of the deaths, according to the ministry, were attributed to “sudden nocturnal death syndrome,” – sudden death during sleep which is a documented cause of unexplained death among young and otherwise healthy men from East Asia.

After the hearing in May the ministry supplied more comprehensive statistics, saying that between 2004 and 2013, 197 foreign agricultural workers had died in Israel. Some 44 percent had died from sudden nocturnal death syndrome. A source familiar with the data said that in the past, various authorities had adopted the syndrome as a blanket explanation for the deaths of Thai workers, even in cases that were totally unrelated to it.

Two suggestions made at the May hearing – electrocardiogram tests for potential workers in Thailand (since the night death syndrome may be related to heart irregularities) and making sure all the authorities with information on a worker provide it to police after his death – are being implemented. But the most basic factor in making health services available to these workers – the ability to understand and be understood – still has no solution.

The Health Ministry’s medical translation hotline has been in operation since 2013. It provides simultaneous translation in cases where a person comes for medical care and cannot communicate with medical personnel. The service is available in Russian, Arabic and Amharic, and operates from Sunday at 6 A.M. through Friday at 3 P.M. It is provided only to government hospitals and Health Ministry bureaus.

In a letter to Rosin last week, the ministry said there was no money to add translation into Thai. In response to a query by Haaretz, the ministry said that the cost of adding another language is 50,000 shekels ($13,700) a month.

The lack of Thai interpreters “perpetuates the lack of access by migrant workers to health services,” said the agricultural workers coordinator at the Kav LaOved workers’ hotline. “This increases the risk of workers getting sick, and keeps the insurance money in the hands of the medical insurers because of the low use of health services.”

Rosin said that these workers’ employers “pay good money for health insurance, but what’s the point of paying for health insurance when in the end the Thai worker sits in front of a doctor and the two can’t understand each other? What kind of medical treatment can he get?”

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