KIBBUTZ KETURA, ISRAEL — The four date farmers stood atop their palm tree, breathing in the humid air and wiping the sweat from their foreheads under the glaring July sun.
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It was about 1 p.m. Taking a short break, the workers looked out at the thousands of date palm trees spread before them below the Arava desert’s dusty pink mountains.
They had been working since 5:00 that morning in the groves of Kibbutz Ketura — two Israelis and two men from Thailand working side by side.
“The people are good, the money is good,” Wasan Chaorai said in broken English. “But the heat is mighty.” Like the other Thai workers here, Chaorai speaks barely any English, and even less Hebrew. His Thai co-worker Chaiyo Luanjit, who wore what looked like a ski mask to guard his face from the sun, appeared to echo his friend’s sentiment.
One of the Israelis, Sahar Ahituv, a 23-year-old originally from Kibbutz Nirim, said: “The Thais have been here over two years, so they’re teaching us how to work the date fields. Most of the time, they’re correcting our mistakes.”
It’s a modern-day reality that differs from the historic image of the kibbutz movement, where Zionists got down in the dirt to sweat and cultivate the land communally, earning respect as the Jewish state’s pioneers and leaders. Chaorai, 39, and Luanjit, 35, are Thai citizens who came to Israel in 2011 to work on Kibbutz Ketura, which American graduates of Young Judea’s Year Course in Israel founded in 1973. Today foreign workers like them represent the majority of date farmers on the kibbutz.
In fact, according to the Ministry of Agriculture, the vast majority of farm workers on all 270 of Israel’s kibbutzim are foreign guest workers.
Now, in an odd reversal, it is they who are teaching a trickle of Israeli Jews how to work the land, as those Jews are lured to farm work by a government incentive program.
According to Marjorie Strom, a researcher at the Arava Institute for Environmental Studies, about 95% of Israel’s agricultural kibbutzim today rely on foreign workers. As for the exceptions, “You can count them on the fingers of one hand,” she said. “Maybe two.”
Most of Israel’s foreign farm workers come from Thailand, through an agreement between the Thai and Israeli governments that allows them to work in the agricultural sector for a maximum of five years. Once those five years are up, they return to Thailand, where the money they’ve earned in Israel goes far.
According to Israel’s Central Bureau of Statistics, foreign agricultural workers earn an average of $1,470 a month. In Thailand, according to the International Labour Organization, agricultural workers take home an average of $184 a month.
A smaller fraction of the foreign workers on kibbutzim are migrants from Sudan and Eritrea. Unlike the Thai workers, they lack the benefit of an official government-sponsored visa program, as relations between Israel and their home countries are essentially nonexistent. The Supreme Court has ruled that it’s not illegal for them to work as they await resolution of their applications for refugee status. But the government has failed to clearly signal this change to employers, leaving many hesitant to hire them.
None of the foreign workers — not the Thais, the Sudanese or the Eritreans — has the ability to obtain Israeli citizenship. And labor abuses occur. Still, according to Kav LaOved, an advocacy group for workers’ rights, they are generally treated better on kibbutzim than elsewhere in Israel.
“Kibbutzim are more responsible,” said Noa Shauer, coordinator of agricultural field workers at Kav LaOved. “There is less taking advantage of workers’ rights” compared with other farms, she said.
Of some 4,000 complaints that Kav LaOved received over the past two years involving abuse of foreign farm workers, about 10% related to kibbutzim. Most of these cases were related to unpaid social benefits, like vacation, pensions and severance money at the end of a contract. Much rarer, Shauer related, were complaints about unpaid salaries, being paid less than minimum wage or unprotected exposure to pesticides — all of which were common complaints from foreign agricultural workers elsewhere, such as on moshavim, a less intensely communal form of agricultural cooperative in Israel.
There are many factors behind the kibbutzim’s increased reliance on foreign workers, but all of them date back to the inflation crisis that shook Israel throughout the 1980s. The government’s response to this crisis transformed the kibbutz movement.
According to Strom, there was an unwritten agreement between the government and the kibbutzim even up to the early 1990s: “You produce food, absorb new immigrants and settle the borders, and we’ll make sure you don’t want for anything,” she explained, summarizing its essence.
But the economic stabilization plan that finally reinvigorated the economy via neo-liberal reforms severely weakened the once powerful kibbutz movement. New capitalist policies meant the end of many government subsidies that had kept the kibbutzim alive.
The kibbutzim “were in debt, agriculture was not being subsidized and suddenly the foreign workers came in,” Strom said.
Around the same time, she added, the romanticism and heroism that had long surrounded agricultural work in Israel began to disintegrate.
“It used to be… that being a farmer was seen as being the most important person, at least on a kibbutz. Now the kibbutz kids go to high school, take matriculation exams, and are expected and trained to take the yuppie path to university and become a manager of agriculture, not farmers,” said Strom. “That’s when you saw the entrance of foreign workers.”
Not only were these foreign workers willing to work for less pay; they were also willing to put in longer hours — even seven days a week — to get overtime. Foreign workers, added Strom, also tended to be better kibbutz workers than Israelis did.
“If you take an Israeli, he won’t just do it, he’ll try to find a way to do it better,” she said. That mindset is great for creativity, she explained, but agriculture requires an exacting, repetitive type of labor, one in which creativity can kill.
Yet according to Israeli human rights activists, there are other, more invidious, factors behind the kibbutzim’s preference for Thai labor.
“Israeli workers have freedom of movement,” Shauer said. “They can go, they can come, they can resign, they can strike, they can demand.”
The government program that brings Thai workers to Israel, Shauer noted, restricts them to working exclusively in agriculture, and only on a specific kibbutz for a set period of time. If a Thai worker wants to quit his job, it’s nearly impossible for him to do so. The kibbutzim, Shauer said, end up preferring Thais over Israelis, who have the ability to move on to another job if they’re not happy.
For the most part, Thai workers on the kibbutzim live on the kibbutz, but apart from the kibbutz community and pay rent to the kibbutz for their accommodations. The Thais also typically prefer to cook their own food and eat together, rather than get their meals from the communal dining halls where the Israelis eat, Shauer said. Nor are they normally seen in the kibbutz swimming pools, she added, because they either think they’re not allowed to swim there, or because they’re too tired from their long workdays.
Still, both the swimming pools and the dining halls are open to them, she hastened to add.
On Kibbutz Ketura, both Israeli hired workers and Thais live in housing units located on the kibbutz, with four people to each two-bedroom concrete structure, with a bathroom and a kitchen.
Foreign agricultural workers have become so common that the Ministry of Agriculture recently started offering incentives for employers to hire Israeli workers instead of foreigners.
Launched in 2010 with a five-year budget of about $12 million, the initiative seeks to employ more Israelis in agriculture by offering them more than the average farming salary, which is minimum wage. The incentives are available to any agricultural entity, not just to kibbutzim.
Initial results of the program were dismal; the ministry had little experience or expertise in employee recruitment. But two years ago the initiative took off when the ministry shifted the incentive payments to farm employers, who were paid for directly hiring Israelis themselves. Since then, some 1,200 new Israeli workers have come into agriculture through the program.
“We’re afraid that in a few years, or a generation, there will not be enough people in agriculture and we’ll have to import all our food from out of the country,” Agriculture Ministry spokeswoman Dafna Yurista said. Hinting at a national security concern, Yurista continued: “Israel is not a place that can be importing all of her food. She must produce her own food, or at least most of it.”
To encourage more Israelis to return to the land, this year the ministry doubled the incentives to an extra $550 a month from an extra $275 a month.
Kibbutz Ketura is just one of many kibbutzim throughout the country that has joined the program. Less than a year ago, everyone working the date palms at Kibbutz Ketura was a foreign worker. Now the Thai workers at Ketura have taken on the unexpected role of teaching young Israelis how to harvest their own land.
“It’s the first time in 10 years that Israelis are coming back to work full time in our date orchard,” said Erez Granit, human resources manager at the kibbutz.
The undocumented African workers, rather than the Thai workers, were the ones who lost their jobs on the date orchard, Granit said. There are no longer Sudanese and Eritreans working the date palms, but they are still working in the dining hall and in the kibbutz guesthouse.
Other kibbutzim that have replaced some foreign workers with Israelis include Ma’agan Michael, the largest kibbutz in Israel, which lies south of Haifa and west of Mount Carmel; Kibbutz Yahel, the first Kibbutz founded by the Reform Judaism movement; Kibbutz Ortal, in the Northern Golan Heights, and Yotvata, which was founded in 1957 as the first Kibbutz in the southern Aravah district and today is famous for its dairy products.
“We’re not only trying to get Israelis back into the fields, but also kibbutz members, so they can pass down that knowledge,” Granit said. “The kids on the kibbutz haven’t been able to work with the dates because no one who worked there spoke Hebrew.” But now that at least some Israeli workers have returned to the fields, the kibbutz’s own kids “can go back to working with the dates,” he said.