Farmers' Strike Over Lack of Workers May Lead to Shortage of Fresh Produce

Israel faces empty shelves midweek as farms hold back goods in demand to import more Thai laborers.

The country's farmers have begun a strike that will last through Wednesday aimed at putting pressure on the government to allow them to bring an additional 4,000 agricultural workers to Israel from Thailand.

The farmers closed the wholesale market at Tzrifin southeast of Tel Aviv yesterday, cutting off the primary supply of fresh produce to supermarkets and grocery stores and to greengrocers and open air markets. Shortages, however, are not expected to be felt today but only tomorrow and Wednesday. Many produce retailers stocked up on supplies last week in anticipation of the strike.

Israeli dairy farm
Irit Rosenblum

The strike will also affect the distribution of fresh fish, milk, eggs and poultry, but disruptions in poultry supplies will be briefer. Agricultural organizations expect the shortages to create a temporary, albeit moderate, increase in retail prices.

Avshalom Vilan, director of the Israel Farmer's Federation, said the government had not fulfilled an agreement to increase the number of Thai agricultural workers from the current 22,000 to 26,000. "Israeli workers," he said, "are not willing to work on farms for legal minimum wages, and neither are they able to stick with agricultural work for more than a very short period." Vilan has also demanded that the 10 percent wage tax farm owners pay on foreign workers be eliminated.

The Population and Immigration Authority refuted the farmers' claim that the government had violated an agreement on the importation of foreign workers, calling it unfounded. The authority said the reason for the labor shortage is that more than 600 farmers had not fully exercised their right to bring in foreign workers and that more than 1,000 additional workers could have been brought in under these quotas.

The Finance Ministry supportes reducing the number of foreign workers in Israeli agriculture and promoting more mechanization on farms in the hope that this would attract more Israelis to farming. Finance Ministry officials plan to meet with representatives of the Agriculture Ministry and agricultural organizations on Wednesday, the last day of the strike. Government officials said the immigration authority and Finance Ministry have tried to help farmers in several ways, including setting up a pilot project to bring 300 laborers to Israel from Sri Lanka.

The chairman of the agriculture committee in the central Arava, Haim Rivlin, said: "In our area, there is no substitute for foreign workers. The Israeli worker has to travel an hour and a half in each direction if he wants to work in the Arava, which is not practical."