Advocates for Thai Workers Threaten High Court Action if Israel Doesn't Implement Pension Deal

Under pressure from farmers, finance minister delayed implementation of an approved agreement signed with the Thai government to ensure the workers’ pension rights

File photo: A Thai worker picks fruit on a farm near Modi'in, June 2014.
Ofer Vaknin

Advocates for Thai farm workers in Israel have warned Finance Minister Moshe Kahlon that if he does not implement an agreement Israel has signed with the Thai government to ensure the workers’ pension rights, their organizations will petition the High Court of Justice.

The organizations, Kav La’Oved and the Human Rights Law Clinic at the Herzliya Interdisciplinary Center are expected to file their petition in two weeks if Kahlon does not comply.

As reported in Haaretz, last month Kahlon decided under pressure from farmers to delay implementation of the agreement, which he had already approved. The Israeli and Thai labor ministers had both pledged to honor the agreement at a festive ceremony in Israel.

The farmers oppose the agreement because it means they will have to pay each Thai worker an additional 510 shekels ($138) a month, and lobbyists for them were successful in their demand that its official publication be delayed so implementation could also be put off.

The Foreign Ministry spearheaded confirmation of the agreement after years of civil struggle to enshrine the rights of Thai farm workers in Israel, after the BBC reported that the workers are exploited and abused.

BBC report on Thai workers in Israel

Following Kahlon’s change of position, the Foreign Ministry warned him that “serious diplomatic damage” would be done to Israel’s ties to Thailand if implementation of the agreement was delayed.

Attorneys Michal Tajar from Kav La’Oved and Hani Ben-Israel from the Interdisciplinary Center’s law clinic wrote Kahlon that since regulations allowing the Thai workers to take advantage of their pension rights had already been passed and the treasury’s agreement obtained, Kahlon should allow official publication of the agreement.

The two lawyers said that pressure by lobbyists for the farmers constituted “extraneous considerations and election-season populism,” and “infringed on the rights of tens of thousands of weak laborers.” Stopping official publication of the agreement was “outright and undemocratic interference” in the work of the Knesset committee involved in the agreement, they added.

Internal correspondence from the Finance Ministry obtained by Haaretz revealed that the chairman of the Knesset Labor, Welfare and Health Committee, MK Eli Alalouf (Kulanu) had indeed reached understandings with Kahlon regarding the pension payments, and that Kahlon backtracked on his consent after a clear commitment had been given to the Thai government on the matter.

Kahlon did not deny that this was the case, and in a statement to Haaretz he said that the agreement “in its current form meant very severe economic damage to Israel’s farmers. If the agreement leads to the collapse of many farmers, it will also lead to the dismissal of the Thai workers and everyone loses. We are working to find a plan that will allow the agreement to be implemented while protecting the farmers.”

The secretary general of the Moshavim Movement, Meir Tzur, who worked hard to delay implementation of the agreement, is a Knesset candidate for Kulanu, the party that Kahlon founded and heads, in the April 9 general election.

The Farmers’ Federation of Israel welcomed Kahlon’s decision and said delaying the agreement had “saved thousands of farms.” The organization said requiring farmers to pay into Thai laborers’ pensions was a “needless tax burden on farmers, because all Thai workers come to Israel for a temporary period of five years.”

In a letter to the Finance Ministry, the Foreign Ministry said it “strenuously objected” to the delay, and that only the previous week the Thai labor minister had visited Israel to study the labor conditions of Thais here firsthand. During his visit he was told that all was in order and the agreement would be implemented on January 1.

“The Thai labor minister saw this update as a diplomatic achievement and the high point of his visit,” the Foreign Ministry wrote, adding that the agreement had been widely covered in Thailand, “following great awareness worldwide of the treatment Thai workers receive in Israel.”

The Foreign Ministry said it was “inconceivable” to backtrack on a commitment by two Israeli cabinet minister to a counterpart in such a friendly country. It added that any delay in implementation “could cause very serious diplomatic damage to Israel-Thailand relations and indirect damage” to Israel’s ties with other Asia- Pacific states.

The BBC report said that tens of thousands of Thai workers who have come to Israel as part of the official Thailand-Israel Cooperation agricultural labor agreement live and work in unsafe and unsanitary conditions. After visiting some 50 Israeli farms, BBC News Thai journalist Issariya Praithongyaem found that many Thai laborers were underpaid and required to work more than the legal number of hours.

Israeli farmers interviewed for the report said the workers were responsible for their living conditions. They said they paid them legal wages and the workers themselves refused to wear protective equipment when doing dangerous work.

The Interior Ministry’s Population and Immigration Authority said in response to the BBC report that it does its best to ensure that workers and employers follow the law. At present, the authority said, most of the workers’ pensions are set aside in a special account that is opened only when they leave Israel, as an incentive for them to leave when their time is up.

The BBC report created such a stir in Thailand and elsewhere that Israel, in a rare move, issued a joint statement in English from the health, interior, foreign affairs, agriculture and labor ministries, rejecting most of the report’s findings. Behind the scenes, however, the Foreign Ministry worked to speed up the signing of the agreement between the two countries that is now being delayed by Kahlon.