The Plight of Thai Women in Israel: 'I Begged to Go to a Doctor but the Boss Refused'

Thai women working in agriculture in Israel suffer from exploitation, sexual harassment at work and harsh living conditions. The Population Authority says 'they should talk to their employers.'

Thai workers pick cabbage near Kibbutz Nahal Oz, July 17, 2016.
Eliyahu Hershkovitz

On a broiling hot day in the Jordan Valley, in the corner of a windowless prefabricated home filled with a group of Thai labor migrants, T sits by herself. In contrast to the men, who are talking and shouting, the small-boned Thai woman remains silent most of the time.

T, 35, is the only woman in the prefab, where 22 men also live. They are labor migrants from Thailand, working in agriculture in the Jordan Valley. Though she has a room of her own, separated by a door with a lock, she and the men share the toilet and the shower, which are closed only by a sheet of plastic. This living arrangement, which comes with unpleasantness and insecurity, is typical for many Thai women who are employed in agriculture in small communities in the south or north of Israel.

Migrant workers employed in agriculture frequently suffer violations of their rights. The bilateral agreements signed between Israel and Thailand in 2010 regularized the employment of the migrants, eliminated middlemen’s fees and reduced the violations of labor laws. However, according to testimonies from workers, many employers still are not paying them the wages they have coming to them by law, are not giving them vacation days and sick days and are neglecting health matters, like immunizations and protection from pesticides. Many workers are living in crowded, insalubrious conditions without heating and air conditioning.

A relatively small group of Thai women – 665 in number, or between 10 percent and 15 percent of the migrant workers from their country – suffer from especially harsh conditions. T Is embarrassed by the question of whether she feels safe, but she replies in the affirmative: “I have a boyfriend and usually I sleep with him, so they don’t mess with me.” However, she adds, sometimes at night the men get drunk and scare her, especially when she uses the toilet or the shower.

Another woman relates that they rely on a male partner to protect them. S, 39, who has two children living in Thailand with her mother, works in an eggplant packing plant. “I live in a prefab,” she says. “We are 30 men and three women. The three of us sleep in one room. The rest of the men in the prefab don’t bother us because each of us has a male partner.”

N, 34, is an agricultural worker at a moshav in the center of the country and is the only woman in the group where she is employed. “We used to live in a prefab and I had a room of my own,” she relates. “Now we are living in a storeroom because they are building us a new prefab.” According to her, she does not suffer from harassment, even though she does not have a boyfriend. She notes that the toilet and the shower are sharedm which makes her uncomfortable. “But the employer is good to me usually and I don’t complain about problems so he won’t fire me.”

Eyal Toueg

R was made to cut her employer’s nails

Another distressing problem for the Thai women is the physical difficulty of the agriculture work. “When you see the advertisements in Thailand about working in Israel, it all looks beautiful and colorful and they say that the pay is good, which doesn’t happen in reality,” relates N, who thought she would be going to Israel to work in a packaging plant but was sent to work in agriculture, even though she says she is not physically strong enough for that kind of labor.

“As part of the job I have to stick heavy iron bars into the ground. In the watermelon season I lift heavy melons just like the men,” she relates. “I would like to do work that is less difficult physically, but I have no alternative. I am afraid to move to another job where they boss won’t be good to me.” According to T, who works in growing peppers, she complained to her employer and his response was that there is no difference between men and women.

A lack of close supervision of the male and female workers leads to bad cases of exploitation. R arrived in Israel when she was 29. She worked in agriculture for a sequence of four different employers. The last one decided to employ her as a maid for him and his relatives, even though her work permit is for agriculture only.

“His wife made me lift heavy things in their house and clean under, them,” she says. “This gave me back problems and I needed urgent medical care. Even though I begged, he didn’t agree to take me to a doctor.”

R describes harsh working conditions. She was made to clean the homes of her employer’s relatives and even to cut his nails. In addition, during Operation Protective Edge her boss did not allow her into the shelter with the family members when the sirens went off.

A windowless prefabricated home for Thai migrant workers in the Jordan Valley.
Nir Keidar

When she came to complain to Kav LaOved - Worker’s Hotline, the non-profit organization sued the employer and sent her to a shelter for victims of human trafficking – even though she wasn’t really a case of trafficking. She received protection and health care in the shelter until the completion of legal proceedings against the employer.

How can the situation of the female Thai workers be improved? “They come to Israel in order to work, and restricting or stopping their recruitment isn’t the solution,” says Noa Shauer, Coordinator for Agricultural Workers at Kav LaOved. The regulations on employing labor migrants ignore the presence of women, she says. “They encounter many difficulties, but they have no one to turn to due to the difficulty in communicating with the employer because of the language barrier and also because they are afraid of getting fired.

“There have to be clear regulations obligating the employer to provide separate living quarters, and especially showers and toilets, so the women will not be exposed to diseases because of a lack of hygiene,” adds Shauer. “Workers’ medical needs are not attended to properly because there is no clinic nearby or because there is no health insurance – which is even more serious with regard to the needs that are unique to women. To whom is a woman going to turn when she needs a gynecologist?”

In cases of emergency, workers usually turn to the Thai Israeli Cooperation Hotline, a joint project of Thailand and Israel that is operated by various local organizations. Workers’ complaints are supposed to go from the hotline to the relevant authorities, but in many cases the workers do not get an answer.

Vulnerable to grave sexual harassment

Noa Shauer, Coordinator for Agricultural Workers at Kav LaOved.
Ofer Vaknin

MK Michal Rozin, former chairwoman of the special Knesset committee on foreign workers’ problems, initiated a proposal for a law regulating the housing of female workers in 2014. The law’s explanatory materials state: “The harm to the female foreign workers is double – both because they are foreign and because they are women. Complaints from female workers who were housed in lodgings shared by both sexes have been forwarded. “According to their testimony, frequent and grave sexual harassment occurs in these quarters.

“In addition, the hygienic conditions in such housing are poor. The Foreign Workers Law stipulates that the economy minister may set compulsory standards for suitable housing, including safety and sanitary conditions, but the regulations that have been established do not redress the problems described here.”

However, the law Rozin proposed was not passed.

The Population Authority responded: “The Population and Immigration Authority is responsible for the living conditions and it conducts inspections that supervise proper housing. Complaints have been submitted and indictments have been filed against employers who lodged workers in inhumane places. The cases that are brought to our attention are examined and dealt with, and foreign workers who wish to complain about issues connected to the conditions of their employment and housing are entitled to turn to the hotline intended for foreign workers.

“We have no authority to intervene in the manner and composition of the housing. We are a government body. If it is unpleasant for female workers – they can complain to their employers.”

The Economy Ministry responded: “The issue of the enforcement of appropriate housing comes under the parallel enforcement aegis of the Labor Ministry and the Immigration Authority. Inspection of housing is carried out in accordance with what is required by law. The law does not prohibit joint housing of male and female workers. The issue of sexual harassment among Thai workers is not the province of the regulatory and implementation administration. We will be glad to receive information about suspicions of infringement of labor laws. The details of the complainant are kept in the ministry and it is also possible to file an anonymous complaint.”