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October 2009

               Agricultural Migrant Workers in Israel


                                       Executive summary:
  •     At present, the agricultural sector in Israel employs some 30,000 migrant
        workers, mostly from Thailand, but also from Nepal, Sri Lankan and Palestine.
        Thai workers arrive from remote village areas after having paid illegally
        charged brokerage fees of around $8,000. Most Thai workers arrive in Israel and
        start working immediately in remote farming communities, without any
        knowledge of Israeli law.
  •     Based on a wide review of worker complaints, as well as visits to the
        agricultural communities, Kav LaOved monitors perceived systematic
        exploitation and severe breaches of worker rights by the employers. Most
        workers are made to work longer hours than the law permits; only a small
        minority receives payment as required by law; part of the workers receive less
        than minimum wage; many workers receive their salaries with great delays –
        often months.
  •     Since the start of 2009 around 10% of Thai migrant workers suffered work-
        related accidents
  •     Trafficking in Thai workers for forced labor is becoming more widespread, as
        does trading workers illegally between farmers.
  •     We recommend conditioning permits for employing Thai farm workers on
        observation of worker rights; to revoke migrant worker employment permits of
        law-breaking employers; to ensure that workers know their rights; to increase
        the enforcement of labor laws in the agricultural sector.




      17 Y.L. Peretz Street, Tel-Aviv, 66853, Israel. Tel: +972-3-6883766, Fax: +972-3-6883537
                   Website: www.kavlaoved.org.il, E-mail: email@kavlaoved.org.il
                                 .




Overview

Farmers in Israel employ some 30,000 migrant workers, mainly from Thailand, but
also from Nepal, Sri Lanka and Palestine. 75% of Israeli agricultural export (fruits,
vegetables and flowers) are sold to the EU. From January until August 2009,
agricultural revenues reached $587 million; a rise of 28% compared to the same
period in the previous year. In 2007 it was reported that revenues from agriculture
reached $1.25 billion.

Thai migrant workers generally arrive from remote village areas after having paid
Thai and Israeli brokers $8,000 on average. These charges are illegal under Israeli
law. The workers arrive in Israel and start working immediately in remote agricultural
communities, without having any knowledge of basic Israeli labor laws, such as
minimum wages, holidays and sick days, severance pay, social benefits, etc. In
addition to the fact that workers are bound by debt to brokers and loan sharks, they do
not speak any Hebrew and very little English. This causes communication problems
with their employers, and they become dependent on fellow workers, Thai embassy
personnel (who can offer limited help,) or interpreters operating on behalf of job
brokers.

Based on a wide overview of worker complaints, as well as Kav LaOved site tours, it
appears there is wide and systematic exploitation of workers, as well as complete
abandonment by government authorities:

•   Most migrant workers are made to work longer hours than the law permits. This
    is a criminal offence under Israeli law.

•   A large number of workers receive no payment for overtime.

•   Most workers are paid less than minimum wage.

•   In many cases, salary payments are delayed for months, or sent directly to the
    country of origin with no indication or report of the amounts deposited.

•   Work-related accidents are very common, due to violations of safety codes and
    lack of training and preparation. Since the beginning of 2009 some 10% of
    agricultural migrant workers (2,950, based on a report by the Agricultural
    Center presented in a conference held September 9, 2009), suffered work related
    injuries.

•   Days of rest and vacation days are denied with no financial compensation, and
    there are employers (among them Kibbutzim) who provide only one vacation day
    per month.



    17 Y.L. Peretz Street, Tel-Aviv, 66853, Israel. Tel: +972-3-6883766, Fax: +972-3-6883537
                 Website: www.kavlaoved.org.il, E-mail: email@kavlaoved.org.il
                                    .




•     It is still common for employers to withhold worker passports, despite repeated
      denunciations of such practice by judicial authorities.

•     Harsh living conditions and humiliation are still commonplace for migrant farm
      workers.


Trafficking in Thai migrant workers
Trading in agricultural migrant workers is not new. Several cases of trafficking are
exposed annually, and some have recently been recently reported in the media. The
agriculture sector further includes many borderline cases – cases which conform with
some of the characteristics of human trafficking for forced labor, but do not meet the
full legal definition. Several such cases have been reported in the media as of late.


    On trading Thai workers between employers

    Of all kinds of brokerage, it would appear that the trade in Thai workers is the most
    troubling. They are considered to be the most exploited of all workers with low wages,
    receiving 27 shekels per hour with 13 shekels per hour for overtime. Most of them
    complain of their salaries being withheld over extended periods, which results in their
    receiving telephone calls from their alarmed families in Thailand.

    A particularly ugly practice is that of brokerage fees that manpower firms are required to
    pay farmers for supplying them with Thai workers. The Thai workers pay middlemen
    some seven to eight thousand dollars at home, of which only two thousand dollars are
    needed to cover expenses such as airline tickets, visas and insurance. The farmer demands
    and receives some two thousand dollars for taking the Thai worker, and the rest goes to
    the manpower broker. In order to repay the debts he accrued by coming to Israel, the Thai
    worker must serve his farming master for about eighteen months. The Thais have become
    commodities like land or water.

    Just as the local farmer (whether in a Kibbutz, Moshav or an individual farm) is allocated
    water and land by the State, the farmer is also entitled to a Thai workers allocation,
    provided the farmer really has a farm and does not trade workers. If a farmer manages to
    accrue sufficient land and water allowances, he also controls migrant worker allowances.
    As a result an agricultural oligarchy has been created in Israel, which illegally leases land,
    water and migrant worker allocations from former farmers.

    The Rabbi of a large Moshav in the Eshkol Region, who does not farm, recently hired out
    his three Thai workers to another farmer for 800 shekels per month per person. The Rabbi
    gave a discount because the normal rate is 1,000 shekels per month without invoices.
    Most of the agricultural black market deals are done in cash, and the agricultural
    establishment seems to be encouraging them.

    From “Farmers trade in workers and water”, Moshe Lichtman, Globes, July 3, 2009




       17 Y.L. Peretz Street, Tel-Aviv, 66853, Israel. Tel: +972-3-6883766, Fax: +972-3-6883537
                    Website: www.kavlaoved.org.il, E-mail: email@kavlaoved.org.il
                                 .




Binding workers to employers in the agricultural sector
Despite the Israeli’s High Court of Justice ruling from 2006, which declared the
binding of a worker’s visa and work permit to a single employer a “form of modern
slavery,” agricultural migrant workers are in essence still “bound” to their employers.
Based on complaints made to Kav LaOved in recent months, workers who asked to
leave their employers due to extensive salary delays, work safety issues, sanitation
issues and uninhabitable living conditions, were unable to do so. The job brokers and
farmers combine their vested interests in order to silence worker complaints.
Employers completely ignore worker demands, and interpreters who work on behalf
of job brokers pressure workers not to complain and “make trouble.” This “trouble,”
in essence are legitimate requests to realize worker rights.



Inadequacy of Enforcement
The Ministry of Industry Trade and Labor, which is charged with enforcing the law
against violating employers, employs no Thai interpreters. Therefore, it cannot get a
real picture of the scope of violations.

As if that is not enough, government inspectors rarely make site visits to agricultural
communities, which makes it impossible to see the real situation of migrant workers.
The very few cases where the obstacles of language and distance are surpassed are
usually treated ineffectively, with law enforcement authorities not bothering to use all
available punitive means, such as revoking migrant worker employment permits or
prosecuting law-violating employers.

The Thai embassy in Israel assists Thai workers only in severe cases, and tends to
prefer financial and principled compromise over affirmation of worker rights.



Recommendations

•   Revoke migrant worker employment permits granted to law-breaking employers.
    Experience shows that this is an effective and deterring means of enforcement.

•   Granting work permits only to farmers with no previous labor law convictions.

•   Law enforcement agencies must operate a 7 days a week hotline, where migrant
    workers can lodge complaints in their native language. Complaints received at
    present constitute a minute fraction of actual violations.



    17 Y.L. Peretz Street, Tel-Aviv, 66853, Israel. Tel: +972-3-6883766, Fax: +972-3-6883537
                 Website: www.kavlaoved.org.il, E-mail: email@kavlaoved.org.il
                                 .




•   Each worker, upon arrival in Israel, must be made aware of his rights (minimum
    wage, days off, holidays and sick days, etc.). Authorities can prepare leaflets
    which this information and a hotline number.




    17 Y.L. Peretz Street, Tel-Aviv, 66853, Israel. Tel: +972-3-6883766, Fax: +972-3-6883537
                 Website: www.kavlaoved.org.il, E-mail: email@kavlaoved.org.il
                                 .




Case descriptions

The case of Moshav Shuva
At this moshav, the employer housed his workers in appalling conditions: they slept in
a hut with cracked walls and an asbestos roof; there was no supply of power, water or
cooking gas, and often six of the workers had to sleep in one single “room.” Under
these conditions, the workers had to cook for themselves using a bonfire (close to the
hut), drink irrigation water, and keep clean without running water. Despite their pleas
to the employer and the manpower company, nothing was done for months.
On 21 June 2009, in the wake of a visit by Kav LaOved representatives at the
worksite, an urgent complaint was sent to the government’s enforcement unit
requesting inspectors to visit the site immediately. Several representatives of the
enforcement unit arrived the next day. They defined the situation as “shocking, and
endangering the workers’ lives”. A few days later, the two sites where the employer
housed his workers were closed down, and nine workers were transferred to other
places of employment. Additionally, the Ministry of Industry, Trade & Labor stated
that it had found offences against the Israeli Foreign Workers Law, and that it would
take criminal and administrative measures against the employer.


The case of Kfar Maimon
A worker, S.T., contacted Kav LaOved following severe health problems. His work
entailed washing and cleaning vegetables with various chemicals, but without being
supplied protective gloves. As a result, for months he suffered serious irritations and
injuries to the palm of his hands.
On 18 June 2009, representatives of Kav LaOved visited the moshav and took and
recorded the worker’s testimony. In the process, it turned out that all 19 workers on
site (Thais and Nepalese) were in conditions close to slavery: they worked every day
of the week (apart from a few annual holidays), fines were imposed on the workers
for arriving at work a few minutes late, their wages were below the legal minimum
wage, the employer shouted and threatened them with expulsion to get them to work
faster. Moreover, some of the workers were signed on illegal contracts stating they
were prohibited from changing employer of their own initiative, and that if they did
so, fines or other sanctions would be imposed on them.
On 22 June 2009, a complaint was sent to the Immigration Police. During the
investigation the worksite was closed down and the workers were transferred to a
shelter run by the immigration police. On 12 August 2009 an indictment was served
against the workers’ employers for exploitation, fraudulent practices, and threats


    17 Y.L. Peretz Street, Tel-Aviv, 66853, Israel. Tel: +972-3-6883766, Fax: +972-3-6883537
                 Website: www.kavlaoved.org.il, E-mail: email@kavlaoved.org.il
                                 .




The case of a moshav in northern Israel
These workers are still with their employers, and the case is under investigation by the
Ministry of Industry, Trade & Labor, so we cannot reveal identifying details about the
moshav and the employer. The employer owes each of his workers amounts ranging
from 13,000 to 16,000 shekels. Moreover the employer pays them wages well below
those stipulated in the Minimum Wage Law. One worker gave a Kav LaOved
representative the "payslip" he was given by the employer: for 370 hours of work per
month, almost twice the legal definition of a full-time job, the worker receives 5100
shekels, less than 14 shekels ($3.5) per hour. This employer is an exporter, and from
the scope of work and the number of workers it seems that the withholding of salaries
is not due to the farmer’s financial difficulties, but to gross exploitation of the
vulnerable situation of his workers.
As in previous cases, here too the workers contacted an interpreter from the
manpower company, but nothing was done on the matter. On 28 July 2009 Kav
LaOved sent a complaint to the Ministry of Industry, Trade & Labor. On 6 August
2009 we were told that the Ministry’s investigators had visited the site and that an
investigation against the employer was being launched.


Nepali workers in Gaza settlements
In recent months, dozens of farming workers from Nepal have visited Kav LaOved’s
office. They had worked with employers in the (now evacuated) Gush Katif
settlements in the Gaza strip. Most workers had worked for five years with those
employers. Nepali farm workers came to Israel due to a decision by the Thai Foreign
Ministry to prohibit their nationals from working in the Gaza Strip area after several
incidents where Thai workers were injured or killed.
Many of the Nepali workers presented payslips showing that throughout their years of
work their wages were lower than the minimum wage (90-95 shekels for a full 8
hours day's work), they were paid less than the legal minimum for overtime (14
shekels per hour) and they were not paid the social benefits due to them by law. In
addition, when the files were opened it turned out that in many cases the employers
bought plane tickets for the workers without informing them in advance, and required
the workers to leave the country without paying them severance pay. Kav LaOved
refers these workers to an attorney in order to file a lawsuit in these cases before their
visas Israel expire.




    17 Y.L. Peretz Street, Tel-Aviv, 66853, Israel. Tel: +972-3-6883766, Fax: +972-3-6883537
                 Website: www.kavlaoved.org.il, E-mail: email@kavlaoved.org.il
                                 .




In one case, that of the Mishkey Gaza District Ltd., workers settled for 127,000
shekels, including legal costs, despite the fact that four of the applicants had already
left Israel before the lawsuit was filed and had signed a waiver for their rights.

Complaints to Ministry of Industry, Trade & Labor
Between April and September 2009, 26 complaints have been filed to the Ministry of
Industry, Trade & Labor. All complaints argue that employers were withholding their
workers’ wages or were paying them less than the minimum wage. Two other
complaints were lodged in connection with unfit living conditions on worksites, and
one complaint was filed in connection with dismissal on fraudulent grounds.
Fourteen complaints were filed with the southern branch of the enforcement unit. It is
worth noting the commendable willingness of the inspectors of this branch of the unit
to work in collaboration and transparency with the representatives of Kav LaOved. In
two cases, the unit’s inspectors enabled the immediate payment of the workers’
wages. In two other cases findings were obtained concerning law violations, and
measures are being taken. The other complaints are still under investigation.
One complaint has been lodged with the supervisor of administrative enforcement at
the unit, in connection with a breach of a court ruling holding that an employer pay
his workers the wages that he was withholding. A recommendation was recently filed
by the supervisor to revoke four migrant worker employment permits from this
employer.
Eleven complaints were filed with the northern branch of the enforcement unit.
Unlike the Southern branch, the investigators in the north are refraining from updating
Kav LaOved concerning their handling of complaints. Two of the complaints are
serious cases of withholding wages. The cases were transferred to the enforcement
unit some time ago, but as of the time of writing no significant measures have been
taken against the employers.




    17 Y.L. Peretz Street, Tel-Aviv, 66853, Israel. Tel: +972-3-6883766, Fax: +972-3-6883537
                 Website: www.kavlaoved.org.il, E-mail: email@kavlaoved.org.il
                                  .




A list of delinquent employers

This list includes only a small fraction of the complaints we receive – those who were
found in violation of the law by the Ministry of Industry Trade and Labor, or who
were sued in a court of law, and the settlement reached with them was given the status
of a court ruling.
Nir Am Cohen Vegetables, Israel Cohen and Ofer Liberman (Kibbutz Nir Am):
Convicted on September 6, 2009 (AP 13/07) of lodging workers in a cardboard, wood
and plastic sheets construction not fit for human dwelling. Fined 250,000-900,000
shekels.
Nisim Lasri (Moshav Olesh): The Ministry of Industry, Trade and Labor found that
this employer used violence against a worker.
A.B. Seeds Ltd., Amnon Ragulski (Moshav Netiv Haasara): The Ministry of
Industry, Trade and Labor found this employer in violation of the Foreign Workers
Law
Tzur Segal (Moshav Netiv Haasara): The Ministry of Industry, Trade and Labor
found this employer in violation of the Foreign Workers Law
Kibuutz Gat: The Ministry of Industry, Trade and Labor found this employer in
violation of the Foreign Workers Law
Katif Venture & Development, Amir Ben Shlomo and Ronen Cohen (Kfar
Maimon): This employer was charged with exploitation and fraud
Kahlon Yaacov and Sons: The Ministry of Industry, Trade and Labor found this
employer in violation of the Foreign Workers Law
M.G.R. Mishkey Gaza District Ltd.: A settlement endorsed by the court in Sugust
2009 orders this employer to pay workers 127,000 shekels.
Strawberry and vegetables (Tut Vayerek), Yosef Alfassi: The court ordered this
employer to pay his workers 142,816 shekels
Yitzhak Rom (Prigan) and Yehuda Tamir: The Ministry of Industry, Trade and
Labor found this employer in violation of the Foreign Workers Law
Asamei Oz 2000 Ltd., Makhlev Admon: convicted of unsafe employment which led
to the death and injury of Nepali workers
Yigal Egozi (Fatzael): A court endorsed settlement ordered this employer to pay
withheld wages to a Palestinian worker
Eitan & Yinon Agriculture, Eitan Rahimfur, Yinon Rosenblum (Naama): A court
endorsed settlement ordered this employer to pay withheld wages and severance pay
to a worker
Uzi Shrifi (Noga): A court endorsed settlement ordered this employer to pay withheld
wages to a Nepali worker. The employer did not comply with the Court order.




Research and drafting: Tom Mehager, Kav LaOved’s Thai workers project coordinator


     17 Y.L. Peretz Street, Tel-Aviv, 66853, Israel. Tel: +972-3-6883766, Fax: +972-3-6883537
                  Website: www.kavlaoved.org.il, E-mail: email@kavlaoved.org.il

				
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