Farmers Suffer as Foreign Workers Kept Out of Arava

The protests by hundreds of Arava farmers last week and their meeting with cabinet ministers have failed to get the government to approve visas for more foreign workers.

At best, the farmers say, their protests helped them blow off some steam. Meanwhile, their pressing shortage for workers is only worsening, they say.

Flower and tomato farmer Eitan Nir, 66, has a quota of 11 foreign workers but only employs eight after three left. He faces bankruptcy this year after losing NIS 300,000. If he is not allotted more foreign workers, he says he will lose NIS 800,000.

"The truth is I need 20 workers this time of year for the harvest," he says. Currently, Nir does not have enough pickers to meet orders for export tomatoes that bring in hundreds of thousands of shekels. "Most of the tomatoes will be thrown away because I have no one working," he says.

This loss would mean that Nir's business, which was built up over 30 years, will be closed down. "My life's work is going down the drain," he says. "I have spent my life's savings already. I have nothing to give my children."

Chaim Hivlin, the man responsible for agriculture at the regional council, says Nir's situation reflects that of many families in the middle Arava, where agriculture is the main industry.

"Arava farmers feel that the government has abandoned them," he says. "They came out of Zionism here. If the foreign-worker crisis continues, lands will be deserted, and there will always be those who move in to fill the vacuum."

Israeli workers have not stayed, farmers say. "We offered salaries of NIS 7,000 and NIS 8,000," one farmer recalled. "Israeli pickers came for two days and then left. The commute wears them out. So we offered housing, but they left because there was nothing for them to do after work."

The need for foreign workers is equally pressing for the Ginats, where Tuvia and Yardena Ginat and their children, Eviatar and Yotam, say they need 40 workers.

"We're not looking for concessions and kickbacks, we only need workers," says Eviatar, who left a high-paying job at Intel for fish farming on the family property, where Tuvia grows peppers, melons and vines.

"This is not a Tel Aviv restaurant that survives even if the Thai cook is deported," he says. "If they take our workers, we collapse at a rate of NIS 10,000 a week."