Who Takes Care of the Foreign Workers?

The denial of medical services to foreign workers, who are morally and legally entitled to them, must come to an end.

Migrant workers from Africa at the Tel Aviv central bus station.
Migrant workers from Africa at the Tel Aviv central bus station. Nir Keidar

Foreign workers who complain that their rights have been violated have long since discovered that the Economy Ministry and the Population, Immigration and Border Authority enforce the law only intermittently. It now turns out that the same is true of an issue no less critical – the denial of medical services to which these workers are entitled. This problem is especially prevalent among agricultural workers.

About a week ago, a 40-year-old laborer from Thailand who had worked in the vegetable fields at Moshav Hatzeva since December 2012 died at Soroka Medical Center in Be’er Sheva. His friends say that for several weeks, Nomphai Phromyalee had complained of pain and fatigue; he therefore requested sick leave and asked to see a doctor. But his friends say his employer turned down both requests. “The last time we saw him at work, he barely had the strength to stand up,” said one. “We saw that the boss was very angry.” Sources at the hospital said that when Phromyalee arrived, he was in shock and didn’t respond to treatment. He died two days later.

His employer rejected these claims, saying he had been unaware of any such request by the worker. All the workers belong to a health maintenance organization, he said, “and they can go see a doctor whenever they want.”

It’s not clear what Phromyalee died of, since the authorities didn’t request an autopsy. But employers and manpower agencies that deal with foreign workers, especially those from Thailand, claim that a substantial portion of deaths among agricultural workers are caused by “sudden unexplained nocturnal death syndrome” (SUNDS), which is known to attack men from East Asia.

Health Ministry data show that from 2008 to mid-2013, 122 agricultural workers from Thailand died in Israel, and 35 percent of the deaths were caused by this syndrome. In another 20 percent of cases, the cause of death is unknown, since no autopsy was performed. But the existence of this syndrome, which a report by the Institute of Forensic Medicine at Abu Kabir confirms, can’t justify ignoring the claims made by Phromyalee’s friends, especially because they aren’t unique to his case.

Employees of the Kav LaOved workers rights organization who visit foreign agricultural workers have more than once encountered workers who lack an HMO membership card, aren’t aware of their rights and are dependent on their employers’ goodwill to obtain medical treatment. Some workers even said that since they aren’t paid for sick days, they prefer to continue working and don’t ask for help.

The Economy Ministry, which is responsible for bringing foreign workers to Israel, and the Health Ministry, which is responsible for the provision of medical services, must urgently look into the availability and quality of the medical care received by foreign workers. This is the state’s moral as well as legal obligation.