Despite International Agreements, Report Raps Worsening Conditions for Foreign Workers on Israeli Farms

Thai, Chinese workers testify to working over 10 hours a day, seven days a week, with hardly any rights and inhumane living conditions

Migrant workers in a farm in southern Israel, April 2019.
\ Eyal Toueg

A new report for the Population and Immigration Authority finds employment terms have worsened for laborers brought in under agreements signed with Thailand and China.

The report says the treatment of foreign workers has deteriorated in many aspects including wages and living quarters. It also cites a failure to avoid dangerous work conditions for these employees.

Agreements signed with these two countries have lowered the broker’s fees once paid by the farming and construction industries to import these workers, but in dozens of other realms the conditions for these workers hasn’t improved, and in some areas have even gotten worse.

>> Driven to suicide: The struggle of Lebanon's foreign workers

The report, titled “Developing Enforcement Tools,” reflects a soft monitoring process conducted by the population authority and the labor ministry. It shows that after bringing in the workers, the state does nothing to ensure that their basic rights are respected.

Based on interviews with about 50 workers by the Center for International Migration and Integration (CIMI), the systematic violations of workers’ rights reflected in the report mirrors many of the personal stories published by Israeli media in recent years.

Yung Fongsak from Thailand, who came to work at a moshav in southern Israel in October, said in an affidavit filed with Kav La’Oved (Workers Hotline), “There is no connection between the contract I was given in Thailand and my work conditions and salary in Israel. We have no rights beyond our salaries, which are less than the minimum wage.

“I worked for six or seven days a week for 10 to 11 hours a day. Sometimes I worked on the Sabbath. My salary per day for eight hours work was 150 shekels ($42), and another 20 shekels an hour for overtime and Shabbat work. When I didn’t work I received no payment, not for holidays, illness or vacation.”

Kigabay Chunchiya said that when he worked at a job in central Israel, he was housed in a “container next to a packing plant that had no window, no air conditioner, no toilet or kitchen. Three workers slept in one bed because they didn’t have separate beds for the three of us.”

Another laborer said he never received any safety equipment when he was asked to climb onto the roof of a greenhouse that wasn’t working.

“One day I was very tired and couldn’t get up for work. The employer got very angry at me and said, ‘I’ll ship you back to Thailand.’ That frightened me and ever since I haven’t asked for a single day off a week,” Makun Shopan said.

These affidavits are part of a petition filed this week in the High Court of Justice by Kav La’Oved against Finance Minister Moshe Kahlon, alleging he bowed to pressure from farmers and failed to fulfill an agreement to ensure pensions for Thai agricultural workers.

In 2010 an agreement was signed with Thailand, which was implemented two years later when 27,000 agricultural workers arrived. In 2017 an agreement with China enabled the arrival of 4,300 construction workers in Israel.

Published earlier this week, the CIMI report found that as a result of the accords with Thailand, there was a drastic decline in fees charged by brokers, from $9,000 to $2,000. This decline in fees contributed to an improvement in workers’ welfare in Israel, who were less tied to their employers. But many other terms of employment did not improve and often got worse.

Sixty-eight percent of workers surveyed reported working longer hours than their contracts permitted, 60 percent reported lower wages than their contracts promised, 32 percent reported wages withheld and the same number reported a failure to be paid for sick days. Twenty-eight percent of workers reported poor living conditions.

Only 44 percent said they had received a pay slip, and only 12 percent of these people said they could understand the writing on the slip, while 26 percent were unaware if they had health insurance, which is required by law. Fourteen percent of workers said employers failed to provide them with a bed, 18 percent said they had no refrigerator and 44 percent said they had no electric heaters. Seventy-four percent assessed their living conditions as poor or very poor.

With regard to workers’ safety, 72 percent said they had been issued protective gear (down from 89 percent in 2016), but only 50 percent had received masks, and of these, half said the masks didn’t work; 60 percent said they had received work gloves.

Eighty percent had nowhere to shower after working with dangerous chemicals and 35 percent reported feeling unwell after such a day at work, compared to 9 percent who had reported these problems before the agreements with Israel were signed. Fifty-two percent said they had received instructions about working with dangerous chemicals, though many said they hadn’t understood these instructions.

The report said, “Even in areas in which there has been some improvement, the situation is far from what the law requires and there are still violations of workers’ rights in the agriculture sector.”

Michael Tajer, director-general of Kav La’Oved, said, “The results of the study funded by the population authority shows that bilateral agreements are not enough to prevent broad violations of workers’ rights, including their right to a safe workplace.”

Tajer said the agreements were critical to preventing the arrival of workers with debts to brokers, but that Israel also needed to make sure that basic health and safety rights were also respected.

The population authority said in response that the bilateral agreements “are meant to provide answers to the issues of worker recruitment, especially the issue of irrational and illegal broker fees, and it appears there has been an immediate impact in this realm.” It added that workers had better awareness of their rights, thanks to improved monitoring of the situation.

The authority said it maintained “tight and strict supervision” in its spheres of responsibility for the workers.

The Labor Ministry did not respond to Haaretz’s request for comment.