Farmers for Slavery

Israeli manpower companies have pocketed thousands of dollars for finding workplaces for foreign workers, in violation of both Israeli and international law.

Over 12 million people, including millions of children, are sold into slavery and prostitution every year, according to a U.S. State Department report published last week.

The report, which is published annually, also ranks countries according to the efforts they undertake to fight the phenomenon. The list indicates that while Israel has been making such efforts, they have not been sufficient. The report accuses Israel, among others, of allowing middlemen to charge fees amounting to small fortunes for bringing foreign workers into the country. As a result, these workers find themselves caught in what is known as debt bondage - they become indebted to agents, employers, banks and the gray market.

Hundreds of thousands of workers have been brought to Israel via this system over the years, thereby making hundreds of millions of dollars for their foreign and Israeli agents. Israeli manpower companies have pocketed thousands of dollars for finding workplaces for foreign workers, in violation of both Israeli and international law. Although the authorities were aware of these breaches, they did nothing - in part because some of the manpower company owners have strong political ties.

In July 2005 the government decided that Thai nationals will only be granted work permits if they are recruited through the International Organization for Migration (IOM), an intergovernmental body that fights human trafficking. In 2006 Thailand signed an agreement with the organization that regulates the recruitment of its nationals for work in Israel. Israel was not party to the deal due to the Foreign Ministry's objection, but it did express its support for it. Some government officials even hoped the agreement would serve as a model other countries would emulate.

But their hopes proved premature. To date, a combination of heavy pressure on the part of farmers and manpower companies, alongside bureaucratic foot-dragging, has prevented the agreement from being implemented, and it does not seem that this is about to change. Once it seemed near implementation, two dodgy manpower companies intervened by petitioning the High Court, claiming that the agreement would infringe on their freedom of employment. Representatives of farmers and manpower companies also met with IOM officials in an effort to persuade them that the agreement would fail.

The motives of the manpower companies are clear: Instead of taking thousands of dollars per person, they will only be allowed to charge a maximum fee of NIS 3,136 - just over $1,000. Part of the fees these companies charge for finding Thais work in Israel will have to be sent to those firms that process the applications in Bangkok.

But why would our farmers, the salt of the earth, fight the deal with such passion? Their interest is clear, too: They prefer to work with indebted employees that won't walk out on them during their first or second year in Israel for fear of being unable to pay back a debt amounting to $7,000 or $8,000, or being unable to pay the mortgages on their family's houses.

Haim Hadad, the Israel Farmers Federation (IFF) official in charge of dealing with foreign workers, met with the Thai minister of labor in Thailand last month. During their meeting, Hadad alleged that the minister criticized her own government's agreement with the IOM and accused Israel of intervening in Thailand's affairs. Indeed, the allegations caused an uproar because they were incongruous with the many measures taken by the Thai government against the trafficking of its nationals both in and outside the country. Later, the Thai embassy in Tel Aviv denied that the minister had made such remarks, and she sent a similar statement to the Israeli embassy in Bangkok.

After failing to sour relations between Bangkok and Jerusalem, the farmers chose a new tactic. "We demand the government cease its failed attempt to involve the UN's immigration committee in bringing foreign workers to Israel," the IFF Web site said. The message even hinted that the motives of Ra'anan Dinur, the director-general of the Prime Minister's Office, who was instrumental in reaching the agreement, were tainted with corruption. "There had already been attempts by [former labor minister Shlomo] Benizri that turned out to have been motivated by personal gain," the IFF Web site said, referring to the Shas politician recently found guilty of corruption.

Every day that passes since the government's decision almost three years ago benefits the foreign workers' middlemen and Israel's farmers. MK Shai Hermesh (Kadima), a member of Kibbutz Kfar Aza, says the labor of Thai workers yields an annual profit of more than a billion dollars in exported produce. That alone is reason enough to rally all those who have a share in the pie in the effort to thwart any agreement that will free the foreign workers from their shackles.