Top Tel Aviv University Staff Backs Field Labor for Students From Africa, Asia

A Haaretz investigation found that studies at the university accounted for only one month of the 15-month program. The rest of the time, the students worked for 12 hours a day or more on farms

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Graduates of the Arava International Center for Agricultural Training.
Arava International Center for Agricultural TrainingCredit: Arava International Center for Agricultural Training

Senior plant sciences faculty at Tel Aviv University voiced their support for a program requiring master’s students from Asia and Africa to do agricultural labor for many hours a day, even though this may not have been legal.

In internal memos circulated since a Haaretz exposé on the issue Friday, a senior faculty member said that any students who worked more than eight hours a day “did so of their own accord.”

>> 'I feel exploited': African, Asian students at Tel Aviv University put to work on farms for degree

Other staff said the farm work was part of a plan to help students offset tuition costs, even though they had visas forbidding them from working.

But senior faculty in other departments demanded an investigation. A special university committee to review the program met after a lawsuit was filed by one student, Emmanuel Samson of Nigeria.

Samson, 25, told a Be’er Sheva labor court about what he called his exploitation and illegal employment. He said he lifted crates of dates from 6 A.M. to 7 P.M. for days on end. “There were no studies, there was no educational component in the work that we did,” Samson said.

A Haaretz investigation found that studies at the university accounted for only one month of the 15-month program. The rest of the time, the students were under the aegis of the Development and Construction Company of the Arava, which operates the Arava International Center for Agricultural Training in Israel’s southeast.

That part of the program involved studying two days a week and working three or four days a week on farms for 12 hours a day or more, students say.

In an email exchange on the issue among senior faculty, Prof. Shaul Yalovsky, an expert on the molecular biology of plants, said the program involved no thesis writing.

“Therefore the students spent relatively little time at the university,” he wrote. “Students in the program know ahead of time that the course of study involves agricultural work.” Some students worked more hours to “increase their income,” he added.

As Yalovsky put it, “In all innocence and a desire for transparency at Arava, they printed salary slips for students to detail the payment they were due and the amount being transferred to pay for tuition and so on. It was a technical error that’s now being used to make claims that they were illegally employed.”

Seven of the 16 students enrolled in the program in the past year spoke to Haaretz. They described a huge gap between what they were told about the program and what took place.

The students received visas stating that they would be studying at the university and were not permitted to work. But after their many hours in agricultural labor each day they received detailed salary slips at the end of the month.

“The claim that the salary slips were more or less issued by mistake is puzzling .… I find it hard to think of a reasonable explanation for issuing a salary slip to someone who isn’t working, especially when the terms of their visa don’t permit them to work in Israel,” said Hila Shamir of the law faculty.

Shamir, who heads a research group on human trafficking, added that if the facts in the Haaretz exposé are true, the university must take “swift action …. Bringing students to Israel from developing countries at a price that’s high for them, making them do work they wouldn’t have agreed to had they known about it in advance … employing them for so many hours without payment is a situation providing a basis for exploitation similar to human trafficking.”

Shamir said the claims that the program was linked to footing the bill for the degree program was “formally illegal given the terms of the students’ visas” barring them from employment.

Prof. Zohar Eitan, a professor at the university’s music school, said that if the allegations were true, “this cries out negligence on the part of all of us, or at the very least, relevant facts were concealed.”

Prof. Ohad Nir, a life sciences expert responsible for the program, said that “anyone who worked against the law did so of their own accord.”

Eitan retorted: “Which of them may have done this of their own choice? Because it’s fun to work 14 hours a day?”