Opinion |

24,000 People in Israel Don’t Even Know There’s Been a Coronavirus Lockdown

While Israelis are celebrating the gradual lifting of the lockdown, there is a group of thousands of people who live in involuntary but permanent isolation – coronavirus or not

Miriam Anati
Miriam Anati
Thai workers in Moshav Sde Uziahu. 14 October 2015
Thai workers in Moshav Sde Uziahu. 14 October 2015Credit: Ilan Assayag
Miriam Anati
Miriam Anati

When all of us eventually emerge from our current home confinement and the coronavirus becomes a more distant memory, a group of 24,000 people in Israel will remain in isolation, cut off from the normal goings-on in the world around them. They were in isolation before COVID-19 reached our land. They will be in isolation after it’s gone.

Their life in isolation goes on as usual even now. They get up in the morning, go to work, come home, have dinner, chat with their friends, spend a bit of time online and then go to bed. Many of them have no idea that the rest of Israel has gone into lockdown—such is their level of isolation.

I am talking about a group of 24,000 men and a few women who live scattered throughout the country, mostly in moshavim and kibbutzim — one here, another there, sometime two, three or more together and, in rarer cases, a group of 30 or more. They are perfectly legal in Israel. Not only legal, they were invited by the State of Israel to come.

They were given a work visa for five years and three months, which entitles them to enjoy all the rights of any other Israeli worker. Together with Palestinian agriculture workers, they are the human hands behind the fruits and vegetables on our tables. They are migrant agricultural workers — and all 24,000 in Israel today come from Thailand.

On arrival in Israel, they go into isolation, and not only in COVID-19 times. They are cut off from society in many different ways. Geographically, they live on the same farm where they work and hardly ever leave it. They normally have a day off, but it’s Saturday and there is no public transportation so they can’t go anywhere. They are also isolated socially as they often do not speak Hebrew or English, only Thai, thus can hardly interact with anyone in Israel.

Thai workers in a greenhouse in Kibbutz Netiv Haasarah. 6 July 2004Credit: Alon Ron

They are isolated from services they are entitled to by law because in practice they can’t access them. For example, they often can’t go to a doctor because the translator from the private agency who should assist them is regularly not available and the clinic has no Thai translator.

Of all these forms of isolation, however, perhaps the most harsh and inhumane is the emotional isolation arising from maltreatment by abusive employers. Many of the workers who contact us at Kav LaOved report that they work for an employer who regularly intimidates them so that they do not complain or talk to anyone about being paid below the minimum wage, living in squalid accommodations or having to climb greenhouses without any protective gear or training.

The coronavirus has not brought much novelty to these workers. They were and remain isolated. They continue working as agriculture is an essential activity and as such not submitted to the same restrictions as other sectors of the economy have been under.

They have very little idea of what is happening around them as they hardly receive any updates in Thai on the situation in Israel. They keep calling us to ask for help in everyday needs because the private agencies, paid by them and their employers to assist them, are too often not available. Those employers who were indifferent to legal requirements before the health crisis, remain unaffected also in these critical times.

Thai workers collect freshly harvested fennel near Kibbutz Sa'ad in southern Israel. March 26, 2014Credit: REUTERS

In the initial days of the crisis we conducted a survey in our Thai language Facebook page asking workers if their employers had checked their temperature, as was required at the time. The result of the survey, repeated over three separate days, was that 97 percent of the almost 500 workers who responded to each separate survey, said their employer had not checked if they were suffering from a fever.

But the coronavirus situation is even more serious than business as usual for Thai migrant workers in Israel. It is also negatively affecting them. When Palestinians workers were asked to stay in Israel without going back home every evening, as was their routine before the pandemic, we heard about Palestinian workers being housed in the already overcrowded accommodations of Thai workers. We also heard from workers who were unwell and isolated in a separate room with hardly any food or medical care.

These days workers also ask us whether they should get medical insurance. We advise them to check with their employer and get a copy of their health insurance card from him (even then, though, they will still need a - usually unavailable - translator to effectively access medical services). Their question, however, shows that many are unaware of their employer’s legal obligation to provide them with medical insurance throughout their time in Israel.

Thai workers harvest spring onions in a moshav in Hatzeva, southern Israel. 28 March 2014Credit: Eliyahu Hershkovitz

The end of the coronavirus crisis will be an immense relief for all us, but it will not alleviate the isolation faced by the thousands of migrant workers from Thailand. While the physical isolation associated with farm work is hardly something that can be changed, other aspects of their isolation can certainly be tackled: the lack of information, assistance and translation, and the rampant labor rights violations, too.

The current system of assistance through a private agency is proving unsuitable to meet the real needs of these 24,000 workers who are too often abandoned to deal with the problems they face by themselves. It needs rethinking.

Organizations representing farmers should start openly condemning their members who break the law, and fighting this phenomenon. Falsifying pay slips, putting people in housing with a leaking roof or sending people to spray chemicals without providing a mask or gloves are just a few of the common, ongoing violations we see that cannot be justified by “the difficult economic circumstances of many farmers.”

Ultimately, however, it is in the hands of the state to wake up from its apathy. The State of Israel can and must use its enforcement powers to produce real deterrence. Only this will ensure that laws are upheld and workers in Israel can be protected from abuse and endless isolation.

Miriam Anati is the Agriculture Coordinator at Kav LaOved, a civil society organisation focused on defending the rights of all workers in Israel

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