Israeli Finance Minister Delayed Deal for Thai Workers After Pressure From Farmers

Correspondence obtained by Haaretz shows Moshe Kahlon postponed the deal after he had already agreed to it in order to appease farmers who may be potential voters

Thai workers plucking in a field in southern Israel, March 2014.
\ Ilan Assayag

Israeli Finance Minister Moshe Kahlon delayed the implementation of agreement to ensure pension payments to Thai workers employed in Israel after he had already agreed to it.

The finance minister postponed the agreement after facing pressure from agricultural lobby, internal finance ministry correspondence obtained by Haaretz show.

The internal correspondence also reveals that a member of Kahlon’s Kulanu party – MK Eli Alalouf, who chairs the Knesset’s Labor, Welfare and Health Committee – is the person who reached understandings with Kahlon about giving the pension deal final approval.

>> Thai workers in Israeli border communities traumatized after Gaza violence

Even in his order to delay implementation of the pension deal, Kahlon admitted that he changed his mind after having already approved the agreement.

Haaretz reported earlier Thursday that the Foreign Ministry sent an urgent letter to Kahlon warning of “severe diplomatic damage” to Israel’s relations with Thailand if the implementation of the new agreement is delayed. 

During the Thail labor minister's visit to Israel last week, the official notes in the letter, he examined the working conditions of Thai laborers. The Thai minister was told that the new regulations concerning the conditions of Thai agricultural workers had been approved by all the relevant government bodies and would take effect on January 1, 2019. 

The Thai minister “saw this change as a diplomatic achievement that was, on his part, the highlight of his visit to Israel,” the official wrote to Kahlon. In addition, the official wrote, the deal was announced by authorities in Thailand and published as an official statement to the public there. The letter notes that the agreement also received widespread publicity in the Thai media, “which follows with great vigilance the treatment that Thai workers receive all over the world.”

The Foreign Ministry official warned that a retreat from the commitments given by two Israeli ministers to a minister from such a friendly country “is inconceivable,” writing, “Any delay in publishing the amendment to the regulations and their implementation could very well cause serious diplomatic damage to Israeli-Thai relations and even indirect diplomatic harm with other nations in the Asia and Pacific region.”

The Foreign Ministry pushed for the agreement with the government of Thailand following years of struggle by Thai agricultural workers to obtain their rights. Interior Minister Arye Dery and Labor Minister Haim Katz met with the Thai minister and personally promised him to honor the agreement. Representatives of the Thai government even came especially to Israel last week to sign the agreement along with their Israeli counterparts at a ceremony celebrating the occasion. However, Haaretz has learned that Israeli farmers, who oppose the agreement because it will cost them 510 shekels ($135) a month per Thai employee, have pressured Kahlon to delay its implementation.

Israeli Finance Minister Moshe Kahlon speaking at a news conference in Jerusalem, October 9, 2018.

The farmers demand that Kahlon change the section allowing retroactive negotiations over pension rights that have not been paid in the past, before this agreement takes effect. While this section is not mandatory, experts say that the farmers are afraid it will nonetheless set a precedent. As a result, Kahlon announced that he is unwilling to approve the implementation of the agreement and has asked to reopen certain clauses.

In recent days it was reported that Kahlon is considering adding the head of the Israel Farmers Federation, Meir Tzur, to his slate in the upcoming elections. Sources familiar with the agreement told Haaretz that the delay in the implementation is a result of Kahlon's efforts to pursue famers' votes. 

The farmers' federation chair congratulated Kahlon for "resisting the pressure and seeing the farmers' interests."

The BBC published an investigative report last month on the conditions of Thai agricultural workers in Israel, saying they suffered from exploitation and abuse.

The Kav Laoved workers' rights organization said in response that it was surprised to hear that "the finance minister was torpedoing the implementation of a signed agreement." It added that the pension deposits should have already taken place given that the Knesset's Labor, Welfare and Health Committee approved the regulations over the summer.

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. The BBC Thai team of reporters traveled across Israel and interviewed hundreds of Thai workers on over 50 farms. The report says many of these workers live in squalor, are overworked and underpaid. 

The report led to a harsh response in Thailand, and in a rare step Israel released a public statement in English on the part of the Health Ministry, Foreign Ministry, Agriculture Ministry, Social Affairs and Social Services Ministry and the Population and Immigration Authority. "We strongly reject the unprecedented allegations reported by the BBC concerning the terms of employment of Thai workers in Israel. These claims portray a distorted picture of reality," the communique stated. At the same time, the Foreign Ministry worked behind the scenes to move up the signing of the labor agreement with Thailand.

Israeli farmers responded to these claims by saying they paid workers according to the law and that it is the Thai workers who refuse to wear protective gear when they work on dangerous jobs, such as spraying pesticides. The Population Authority said in response that it does its utmost to ensure that the workers and their employers follow the law.

Today, most of the funds for the social benefits paid to the Thai workers are deposited in a special savings account that is released to the worker only when they leave Israel. This is meant partly to incentivize workers to leave when their visas expire and not to remain in Israel. 

The Finance Ministry's office told Haaretz: "This is an agreement that in its present form poses very severe economic harm to Israeli farmers. If the agreement brings about the financial collapse of a great number of farmers, it will lead to the firing of Thai workers, and everyone will lose. We are working on finding a framework which will allow the implementation of the agreement while protecting the farmers."