When Abdul Aziz Diop, an agriculture student from Senegal, signed up for a work-study course in Israel, he thought he’d be participating in an advanced educational program that would teach him about the Jewish state’s cutting-edge farming methods. Instead, he says, he was given a plastic bucket and a crop-picking quota.
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“Early on it was clear that this was not a practical curriculum but simply a plan to hire cheaply and take advantage of people,” says the 25-year-old Diop, who claims in a sworn affidavit that the program he signed up for boiled down to nine-hour days in the fields under the watchful eye of supervisors authorized to dock pay and expel anyone who dared to protest.
Over the last decade, thousands of foreign students have been brought to Israel from around the world under at least six programs that promise to teach them practical agricultural skills. Diop was one of the participants in the largest of these programs, Agrostudies, which has brought more than 4,500 students to Israel since 2008 — mainly from Africa, Southeast Asia and South America.
But last year, Diop and other fellow students banded together with Kav LaOved, an Israeli NGO that assists foreign workers and asylum seekers, and filed a class-action lawsuit seeking more than 100 million shekels (about $264,000) in damages from Agrostudies, alleging that the program had defrauded its participants.
In an interview with Haaretz, Agrostudies officials denied all the accusations, saying the program complies with Israeli laws and provides real training to foreign students.
Noa Shauer, coordinator of foreign workers at Kav LaOved, says she first learned about the program during a visit to a moshav in the Arava desert in 2014. She was there investigating allegations of abuse suffered by Thai workers employed as laborers by the Israeli farm industry. In the process, she met two students workers who had been recruited from other Southeast Asian countries.
After inquiring within agricultural communities across Israel, Shauer began to view Agrostudies and programs like it as duplicitous new mechanisms for labor recruitment. “Farmers know exactly what’s going on with the students. From the testimonies we’ve received, there’s no difference between the way Thai workers and the students are treated, except that [students] are here for less time and have less rights,” Shauer says.
The class-action suit filed in July 2015 in the Lod District Court claims that the program falsely represents itself as an academic institution. It includes sworn affidavits from more than a dozen former Agrostudies students who state that recruitment officials misrepresented the program and that the program itself didn’t provide any real education, exploiting the participants as laborers instead.
Diop, who is the spokesman for the group, declared in his affidavit that “there was no relationship between school and work; we didn’t learn anything about managing a farm or the growth process, nothing about irrigation systems or agricultural technology.” Agrostudies officials argue that students received substantial training in all fields of operation.
In response to the allegations of false advertising, two top Agrostudies officials, who asked not to be named, said that “the terms and conditions of the program clearly state that we are not a university. We do not promise anything regarding academia.”
“Our purpose is to take those students who have already gained the theoretical knowledge in university and bring them to Israel to practice modern agriculture,” the officials told Haaretz. The officials say it's possible that some of the students were unaware of how difficult large-scale farming really is, with a five-day workweek of hard, physical labor.
The lawsuit argues that Agrostudies’ mission statement, methods and use of academic language are deeply misleading. For 11 months, students work five days a week — what the mission statement refers to as “learning by doing,” whereby Israeli farmers “are able to pass on their knowledge and experience in commercial farming."
On the sixth day, students convene in a classroom for theoretical studies.
Diop stated in his affidavit that those who taught theory did not have an academic background of any kind, or even a college degree.
Moreover, Diop says that the practical studies lacked any guidance or structured learning after the initial training. “All we did was simple, physical labor. All that mattered to [the] farmers was to harvest as much as possible,” his affidavit says. “All we do is pick, pick, pick. There was no education. No guidance.”
Admission to the Agrostudies program costs nearly 15,000 shekels between tuition and one-time fees, not including airfare. The lawsuit claims that Agrostudies acts as a recruitment agency for the farm industry, and the tuition and administrative costs are nothing but masked broker fees.
Recruitment or manpower agencies have often been at the center of controversy over Israel’s use of foreign laborers due to the high fees they charge, which often leave workers deeply indebted.
Under a 2011 agreement between Israel and Thailand — the country from which the overwhelming majority of Israel’s migrant farm workers hails — laborers must be hired directly by their employers, rather than through a recruiter. The lawsuit against Agrostudies claims the program sidesteps this agreement, as well as laws that prohibit exchange students from working in Israel.
The Agrostudies officials rejected the accusations, saying that they have a special permit from the Foreign Affairs Ministry, the Agriculture Ministry and the Interior Ministry. “We work under their guidance to operate this program,” they said.
According to the lawsuit, students were required to pick up to 2.4 tons of produce a day when in the fields. The complainants say they worked for minimum wage and had their salary docked if the yield was low. Money for accommodation, income tax and insurance costs was also deducted from their paycheck.
The plaintiffs allege that any protests could have lead to their expulsion from the program and deportation from Israel.
“If we do something to the dismay of farmers we are punished by not being allowed to work and not being paid,” says Mouhamed Diouf, a Senegalese student, in his affidavit, adding that “farmers are constantly threatening to send us back to our country.”
Another Senegalese student, Lamine Nidaye, states that he witnessed the arrest of a female Senegalese student who was detained for several days and then deported because she failed to apologize for participating in a labor strike for fair wages.
The Agrostudies officials acknowledged that farmers had withheld pay, but added they had stepped in to stop the practice. They said that there had been disciplinary issues, but insisted these were increasingly rare and always mediated by the student’s home university. “There was not a single student who was unhappy with the program that we didn’t console immediately, offer to refund tuition or help in any way,” they told Haaretz. Diop, who is now back in Senegal, was one of those offered a refund, but he refused it, they said.
The program’s website includes testimonials of graduates' success stories featuring alumni starting their own farms or receiving agricultural grants. “The only bad press we get is in Israel. Everywhere else we get good reviews,” the officials said.
The representatives from Agrostudies are confident the lawsuit will get dismissed, and are counting on the support of Israeli and foreign diplomats who are expected to take the stand for the defense.
But Shauer claims this support is politically motivated, as officials are likely to turn a blind eye to worker exploitation to foster diplomatic ties. “It’s not easy for Israeli ambassadors to create lasting bonds with countries like Nepal and South Sudan — programs like [Agrostudies] help,” she says.
A preliminary hearing in the case was held in March and witnesses will be heard in December, according to officials from Kav LaOved and Agrostudies.