Israel Recognizes Five Asian Men as Victims of Human Trafficking and Slavery

Workers’ rights groups have long complained about a lack of government supervision of agricultural employment; investigations into current cases are underway

File photo: Thai workers in a kohlrabi field in southern Israel, April 15, 2018.
Eliyahu Hershkovitz

For the first time since 2010, Israel police have recognized five men as victims of trafficking for enslavement and opened three criminal investigations against their employers, suspected of holding them in prison-like conditions and coercing them to work without compensation.

All five men hail frrom Asian countries, and have since been placed in shelters. Police are also looking into the circumstances of their trafficking into Israel, they payment for them and their passports, which were taken away.

The probes have been going on for months. The police recognized the men as victims after finding “preliminary evidence” that they had been brought to Israel and held in slavery conditions. The maximum punishment for such a crime is 16 years in prison.

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One of the cases was discovered a few months ago when the worker from Thailand was found at a gas station in the south in serious condition. The two other cases were brought to the attention of the police by social welfare organizations.

“These are very sensitive and unusual investigations that have a very high bar for proof,” said a senior official at the Justice Ministry.

“There is a need to prove that a deal was made with someone in a foreign country who had knowledge about the trafficking for the purpose of enslavement and that the conditions in which the men were held in Israel meet the bar set in legal rulings. The investigations also require investigative efforts overseas, so they take time.”

Among the suspicions being investigated are payments made in advance by the victims, the confiscation of their passports, and the allegation that they worked day and night seven days a week amid false-imprisonment conditions for no money, or minimal pay.

“They are made to work without a break; this is one indication of slavery,” the Justice Ministry official said.

Despite the rare recognition of men as victims of human trafficking, social welfare groups say the five are just an example of the many thousands employed under similar conditions in agriculture.

“In addition to praising what seems to be the beginning of the authorities’ work to identify the victims of modern slavery in Israel, we are also very worried that all those workers recognized are not rare and extreme cases but individual representatives of a very widespread phenomenon,” said Michal Tadjer, an attorney with rights group Kav La’oved – Worker’s Hotline.

“For years, civil society organizations, led by Kav La’Oved and the Hotline for Refugees and Migrants, have been warning about very dangerous models of employment where the road to modern slavery is very short. These models are not only continuing, but the trend of the past two years is to expand them.”

As she put it, it would be better if Israel prevented such employment, which includes paying astronomical sums to middlemen, binding the worker to an employer and reducing the mobility of workers, all “for a group that was long ago shown to be vulnerable to severe exploitation.”

Workers’ rights groups have long attacked the Interior Ministry and its Population and Immigration Authority, complaining about a lack of government supervision of agricultural employment.

Kav La’oved estimates that about 25,000 workers from abroad are employed in agriculture, most of them from Thailand. The organization accuses farmers of providing harsh conditions for employees, paying less than the minimum wage, and withholding information on their rights by exploiting their weak Hebrew.

Late last month the cabinet approved a multiyear plan to fight human trafficking, which included recommendations on stricter enforcement, prevention and cooperation with other countries.

It was decided to increase fines against anyone taking part in human trafficking, especially when it involves prostitution.

Also, the investigation of such crimes has been transferred to the investigative units at the district level. Finally, special units to address the problem and provide training in fighting human trafficking have been established.