The smiles at the master’s degree graduation ceremony in plant sciences for foreign students at Tel Aviv University hid a sense of insult and exploitation. A Haaretz investigation found that the students, all university graduates from Africa and Asia, were required to work at Arava moshavim for many hours at jobs that contributed nothing to their professional knowledge, and that only one month of a 15-month degree program was devoted to studies at the university.
The rest of the time they were under the authority of a company called Development and Construction in the Arava, which operates an organization called the Arava International Center for Agricultural Training.
The program consisted of one month’s studies at the university in July, and after that two days a week of studies in the Arava and three to four days of work on Arava moshavim, 12 or more hours a day, which had little to do with their academic field.
This was not what A., 25, from Vietnam, who has a B.Sc. in biotechnology, expected when he landed at Ben-Gurion Airport in late 2017, thrilled to be taking part in a master’s degree program at prestigious Tel Aviv University.
He knew the program was run jointly with a commercial company, but thought little of it at the time. He had an interview with Prof. Ohad Nir of TAU’s life sciences faculty, and it was explained to him that the program had a theoretical and a practical part, the latter consisting of working on a farm. He was happy for the practical experience and was willing to pay the tuition, 22,000 shekels (about $6,000), a huge amount for him.
“I feel humiliated, exploited,” he told Haaretz at the end of his studies. “I worked at harvesting and planting alongside workers from Thailand. Sometimes we worked 16 hours a day and nobody tried to teach me anything.”
Haaretz talked with seven of the 16 students in the program, which has been operating since 2014, who described a huge gap between what they were told about the program and what actually took place. When they came to Israel they were given student visas, which expressly prohibit them from working.
Most of the students were afraid to break the rules, but one, Emmanuel Samson, decided he couldn’t keep silent. He was not at the graduation ceremony; while his friends were receiving their degrees, he was testifying at the Be’er Sheva District Labor Court about the harsh conditions of his “internship.”
A suit filed on his behalf by attorney Michal Tager, head of the workers’ rights group Kav La’oved, and Hani Ben-Israel of the clinic for immigrants and refugees at the Herzliya Interdisciplinary Center, stated that Samson was exploited and employed illegally.
Willing to work more than eight hours a day?
Samson, 25, who has a B.Sc. in microbiology from the University of Calabar in Nigeria, said in his court deposition: “When I came to Israel I was taken from the airport to Ein Yahav with two other students from Nigeria and Kenya and the next day we started to work packing dates. Then I worked planting melons. When I worked with the dates I usually worked 11 or 12 hours a day. Some days I worked 16 hours. No learning was involved. Usually the Thai laborers showed us what to do. Every time large sums were taken out of my pay.”
The information sheets for students in the program says they “may” work “up to” three days a week. But in fact, the commercial company that employed them worked them four days a week. Samson and his friends said they had no choice but to work because it was part of their study program, and they were afraid they wouldn’t get their degree if they refused.
Haaretz learned that the university received complaints from various sources, including a detailed complaint from Kav La’oved, which asked the university to re-examine the program. This has not been done.
The attorneys wrote to senior university officials that the program, which “is presented to the students as a high-level program for a master’s degree, is in fact used to illegally hire students on farms in the Arava under particularly insulting conditions.”
The letter received no response.
The university said about the matter: “The program was established and is overseen by the university committee for master’s degrees, and until October 2018 was overseen by an oversight committee in keeping with the demands of the university.”
The university said it had received a letter with “claims about issues that are not academic,” and since the master’s degree committee deals “with academic issues only, it was decided not to discuss the matter in the committee.”
At the graduation ceremony, Tel Aviv University Vice President Raanan Rein told the students: “In the beginning we had doubts about the program, but it is a huge success.” The head of the university’s Manna Center for Food Safety and Security added: “We know that it is a dream of many students to come here, and this is a dream that is coming true for you to stand here today.”
And yet, a student from Kenya told Haaretz that in his interview on Skype, he was already asked before his arrival if he was willing to work more than eight hours a day.
According to Samson, students complained about their working conditions during the program itself, but to no avail. “It’s sad that an institution like Tel Aviv University would help exploit people who don’t know what they’re coming for.”
He added, “We were simply exploited. The only time I saw the owner, the farmer, was in planting season and then it was important for him, otherwise he would lose money. They saw us as laborers, like the Thais ... and usually the Thais were paid more. ... There was no learning here. For them we were slaves. We don’t deserve this just because we come from Asia and Africa.”
The Arava International Center for Agricultural Training responded that the program began “with the goal of training students from developing countries and combining an academic degree from a leading university along with exposure to advanced applied agriculture in the Arava.”
The center said that the program had so far graduated 64 students, “all of whom went back to their home countries and received quality jobs in government ministries, universities and commercial companies.”
The Company for Development and Construction in the Arava responded that the program gives the students valuable knowledge. On cross-examining Samson in court, the lawyer representing the company, Hofit Kahane, said to him: “I’m telling you that you earned a great deal of knowledge from the various farms to which you were exposed. What do you have to say to that?”
Samson responded that this was not true.
When Kahane pointed out that Samson had worked at a “huge packing house with the most modern technology,” Samson replied: “A master’s degree in food security – what does that have to do with a packing house? I lifted crates of five kilos 13 stories from 6 A.M. to 7 P.M.”
Samson told the court that he had never been informed in writing of the conditions of his employment and he was not properly compensated for overtime, expenses and benefits.
The company responded that claims of overwork were “mistaken” and “if there were such cases, they were few, and that “the students were properly compensated.”
Tel Aviv University told Haaretz on Friday that the institution "runs an international master's degree program in plant sciences, parallel to the Israeli program, which holds to high academic standards. The university will establish a team that will assess the claims brought against Development and Construction in the Arava and produce the takeaways."
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