Tel Aviv University is no longer sending African and Asian masters students in the plant sciences program to perform menial labor in the country’s south.
A university committee found that the practical part of the program, which required the students to work long hours at backbreaking tasks in the fields of the Arava Desert, is “improper” and should be “fundamentally changed.”
The committee was convened following a report in Haaretz in March. The practice has since stopped and the university is seeking ways to apply the committee’s recommendations for the current cohort as well as future ones.
The committee was appointed on March 10, two days after Haaretz reported that students from Africa and Asia, including university graduates, were required to work long days as ordinary laborers in moshavim in the Arava, doing tasks such as harvesting peppers alongside foreign workers.
Only about one month out of the 15-month-long program was spent at the university. The rest of the time the students were under the authority of Development and Construction in the Arava, a company that operates the Arava International Center for Agricultural Training. For 14 months of the program, the students studied twice a week while putting in three or four days of 12 hours or more of manual labor each week.
One of the students, Emmanuel Samson, filed a lawsuit through attorneys Michal Tager from the workers’ rights group Kav La’oved and Hanny Ben-Israel of the Refugees and Immigrants’ Rights Clinic at the Herzliya Interdisciplinary Center. The suit stated that Samson was exploited and employed illegally.
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Haaretz spoke with seven of the 16 students who took part in the program this year. They described a major gap between what they were told about the program and what actually took place. They said they worked alongside foreign laborers from Thailand who were in charge of their “professional training” rather than lecturers or experienced farmers.
“The current situation, in which the students receive a ‘living stipend’ from the International Center for Agricultural Training to fund their studies, room and board in exchange for ‘practical experience’ is improper and should be corrected,” the committee’s report said. Its members noted that the long hours, lack of professional guidance and the way their stipends are categorized in their payslips “must be fundamentally changed.”
The committee, chaired by TAU Vice Rector Prof. Eyal Ziser, heard a number of testimonies, among them Prof. Abdussalam Azem, the dean of the Faculty of Life Sciences and chairman of the program’s monitoring committee, Prof. Nir Ohad, who heads the program, and students now enrolled in it at the Arava campus.
The committee also heard from two experts in labor migration, Prof. Guy Mundlak of the labor studies department and Dr. Hila Shamir of the university’s law school.
Complaints about the program had been filed with the university before the Haaretz report was published, but the master’s degree committee had declined to deal with them, stating that it “deals with academic issues only.”
The committee concluded that the students were unaware of the extent of labor required before starting the program. “Some of the students said that although they had received information orally and in writing from the heads of the program about its makeup, content and conditions, the studies and the practical experience, when they arrived in the Arava they were surprised by the type of practical work required of them,” the committee wrote.
It noted that most of the students in the program come from developing countries and cannot fund their stay or their studies and must therefore receive a stipend. It recommended an arrangement that would provide a stipend that “conditioned on a reasonable extent of practical experience, like the stipends for involvement in social action [given to students in the field of social welfare].”
The panel stated that the agricultural work required of the students should be “under well-defined conditions, with pre-determined reasonable hours accompanied by guidance and enrichment provided by experts that emphasize the technological and academic aspects of the program.”
In the Haaretz report, one students said that he felt humiliated and exploited. “Sometimes we worked 14 hours a day from quarter to six in the morning to 8 at night, sometimes I was asked to work at night as well,” he said. “I didn’t learn anything and nobody tried to teach me anything.”
When the students came to Israel they were given student visas, which expressly prohibit them from working. In this context, the committee indirectly conceded that their work did not conform to regulations in Israel. “According to the regulations on entry to Israel, master’s degree students are allowed to work only in the institutions in which they study and only part time in teaching,” the committee said, adding that it “will be made clear that employment … will be possible only according to the regulations on entry to Israel.”
On the TAU website, the program is presented as an innovative, interdisciplinary approach for excelling students from around the world who are interested in obtaining a master’s degree in plant sciences, emphasizing food safety and security.
The informational booklets for students says they “may” work “up to” three days a week. Samson and his friends said they had no choice but to work because it was part of their study program, and they were afraid they wouldn’t get their degree if they refused.
The committee found that the academic aspects of the program “met all academic tests,” but it still made a number of recommendations for improvement. It concluded that the program required “continued strict monitoring and oversight by the faculty and a number of improvements in its contents and conduct, including involving lecturers – permanent faculty members – in the study program in the Arava and including a preparatory program.”