The Thai government is demanding an explanation from Israel over why the deductions taken from foreign agricultural workers are set to double.
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Last month, Finance Minister Moshe Kahlon and Agriculture and Rural Development Minister Uri Ariel agreed to allow employers to increase deductions from the wages they pay foreign agriculture workers by 300 shekels ($77.40), reaching 530 shekels a month. Haaretz has learned that this decision will not be discussed by the Knesset Finance Committee and will be passed in the next budget, with no opportunities for lodging objections.
Following this step, the Thai embassy in Tel Aviv turned to Thailand’s labor ministry with a request that it seek explanations from the Israeli government. The embassy claims it received no updated information regarding the change, which will significantly impact the wages of 20,000 Thai farmhands currently working in Israel.
According to agreements signed by both governments in 2012, Israel must update Thailand regarding any change it makes to employment conditions. Since that agreement was signed, Thai workers have been recruited directly rather than through manpower companies.
Kahlon and Ariel’s decision was the second in less than a year to significantly reduce the workers’ wages. Earlier this year it was decided to cancel some income tax credits, worth hundreds of shekels a month. Combined, the two decisions will cut Thai workers’ pay by tens of percentage points.
“We notified our government as soon as we found out,” Thailand’s ambassador to Israel, Angsana Sihapitak, told Haaretz. “There is no need for Thai workers to come to Israel. We want to maintain our agreement, but if it becomes unprofitable to work here they’ll stop coming. I’ve seen with my own eyes how their conditions don’t conform to Israeli laws. Their wages are below the minimum wage and they work more hours than is legal, not receiving appropriate compensation for overtime. Raising their deductions will hurt them. The embassy will now provide more focused answers to new potential workers wishing to come here, and they will consider whether to do so. Our relations with Israel cover many areas and we wish to continue with our positive cooperation.”
Kav LaOved, a nonprofit group protecting the rights of disadvantaged workers, called it “a fateful decision for these workers, and attempts to push it through with no debate are scandalous. We question its legality, since no in-depth examination of future ramifications for foreign labor was done. Such examination is required, based on a Supreme Court decision that requires authorities to examine proposals that could harm individual rights.”
Last week, the nonprofit wrote to Kahlon and Ariel, calling on them to scrap the new regulations, “which severely and disproportionately harm protective measures in the workplace. These workers live in substandard housing and work under harsh and exhausting conditions. This decision, along with the cancellation of tax credits, will severely impact their wages,” wrote attorney Michal Tadjer.
Over the years, several studies have been conducted, showing exploitation and serious infringement of workers’ rights among Thai workers in Israel’s agriculture sector. Last month, a new study by Rivka Reichman and Nonna Kushnirovich was published, in collaboration with the Simi organization and the Ruppin Academic Center. The study showed that the average monthly wage of Thai agricultural workers in Israel is 4,994 shekels ($1,200). Laborers work 9.6 hours a day on average, and get 3.7 days off a month. A third of them have no dresser for their clothes, no heating, air-conditioning or washing machines, and only 20 percent reported getting paid sick leave.
“Israeli law stipulates that migrant workers should receive the same benefits as Israeli workers. Employers are required to provide employees with a contract written in a language they understand, to pay for health insurance and provide them with adequate housing,” wrote the study. “The data show that breach of contract is common. Eighty percent of migrant workers reported working and housing conditions that did not match their contracts.”
“These are laborers who don’t even make minimum wage, since the state is not enforcing its labor laws,” says Noa Schauer, who is responsible for agricultural workers at Kav LaOved. “We estimate that they receive 70 percent less than the minimum wage, since they work more hours than allowed. The average for them is 10 hours, but their workday can also last 16 hours.”