Pressured by Farmers, Israel Delays Deal to Guarantee Pensions for Thai Workers

Week after labor agreement signed between Israel and Thailand, Israeli farmers employing Thai workers urge government to amend it

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

Finance Minister Moshe Kahlon has delayed the implementation of an agreement signed just last week between Israel and Thailand to guarantee pensions and other benefits for Thai agricultural workers in Israel, following pressure by Israeli farmers.

The Foreign Ministry pushed for the agreement with the government of Thailand following years of struggle by Thai agricultural workers to obtain their rights.

The agreement was signed last Thursday in an official ceremony in Israel, attended by representatives of the Israeli interior and labor, social affairs and social services ministries, who worked on and approved the agreement, and their Thai counterparts.

Haaretz has learned, however, that Israeli farmers oppose the deal because it will cost them about 510 shekels ($135) a month per employee, and have demanded that Kahlon delay its implementation.

The farmers also asked to change a section allowing negotiations over retroactive pension rights. Though not mandatory, experts involved in the matter say farmers are afraid this section will nonetheless set a precedent.

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

File photo: Finance Minister Moshe Kahlon at a press conference on dairy reform, Jerusalem, October 29, 2018.
Emil Salman

The 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

Israeli farmers responded to these claims by saying they paid workers according to the law and it is the Thai workers who refuse to wear protective gear when they work on dangerous jobs, such as spraying pesticides.

The Foreign Ministry said in response that a number of government ministries authorities vigorously supervise employment of foreign workers and enforce workplace safety, health and compliance with the Israel's labor laws.

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," states the communique.

At the same time, the Foreign Ministry worked behind the scenes to move up the signing of the labor agreement with Thailand. Blocking the agreement now risks not only hurting Thai workers, but also Israel's diplomatic relations.

The Finance Minister'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."