Migrant workers in Israel’s agriculture sector are among the most exploited, according to an October 28th report by Kav LaOved, an Israeli NGO campaigning for the rights of disadvantaged workers in Israel and the Occupied Palestinian Territories.
Ninety per cent of such workers work more hours than allowed under Israeli law, without overtime payments, said the report, which has been presented to members of parliament.
The report summarises hundreds of complaints by agricultural workers and dozens of inspections by Kav LaOved volunteers at work sites around the country, and paints a grim picture of systematic exploitation and severe violations of workers’ rights in the agricultural sector.
Hanna Zohar, Kav LaOved director, said the workers, mostly Thai, are completely unaware of their rights.
‘Having paid US$8-10,000 to work in Israel, they are prime material for abuse by the farmers, as they are afraid to lose their jobs and not able to pay off the loans taken to cover these payments to the middlemen,’ Zohar said.
The launch of the report has been timed to coincide with the current campaign by farmers for additional permits for migrant workers, and is intended to further public debate on the issue.
Farmers have been demonstrating for more permits in recent weeks and there have been violent clashes with the police.
Some 30,000 migrant workers are employed in the agricultural sector, mostly from Thailand, Nepal, Sri Lanka and some from the Palestinian Authority, according to Kav LaOved and official figures from the Ministry of Industry, Trade and Labour.
The Thai workers come from rural areas after paying middlemen in Thailand and Israel, and most work in remote and isolated locations, unaware of their legal rights, according to Kav LaOved’s research done in the past year.
The report said it is common practice in many agri-businesses to dock leave, and some employers give workers only one day off a month.
Employers who withhold passports – strongly condemned by the legal authorities – are still commonplace, according to Kav LaOved and Moked, another NGO which campaigns for the rights of migrants.
Since the beginning of 2009, 10 per cent of agricultural workers (2,950) have been injured, the report said.
Evidence of harsh living conditions and demeaning treatment crop up routinely in Kav LaOved’s inspection reports.
At a visit to one farm, IRIN found some workers living at a potato crop disposal site, in a small, stifling container.
Workers told IRIN they cannot leave as they must pay off huge debts in their home countries.
The Israeli Ministry of Industry, Trade and Labour spokespersons’ unit said: ‘The department of foreign workers has been investigating private manpower and building cooperatives to prevent charging migrant workers sums that exceed those allowed by law. . .
‘In 2009, dozens of licenses were revoked. . . We ask Kav LaOved to work jointly with the attorney in charge of foreign workers’ rights in the ministry, Iris Maayan, and allow the different enforcement factors in GOI (Government of Israel) offices to work more efficiently.
‘The issue is of great importance for the Ministry.’
Israeli Interior Minister Eli Yishai has said he will not grant legal status to some 1,200 children of migrant workers, triggering an anti-deportation campaign led by several NGOs.
The 1,200 are not included in the 2006 government scheme that granted legal status to over 600 children of migrant workers.
‘Their parents are using them to gain legal status in Israel . . . If we do not deport them, migrant workers will continue to exploit the kindness of the state of Israel,’ Yishai said.
An inhumane and draconian clause in most migrant workers’ contracts forbids them from having children in Israel and says pregnant women must leave the country.
Nevertheless, an estimated 2,000 children of migrants were said to have been born in the past decade in Israel, according to the Tel Aviv Education Authority.
Some 250 families face deportation along with hundreds of children born in the past three years in Israel, according to activists campaigning for migrants’ rights.
In July, OZ (the new immigration enforcement unit) launched an operation aimed at deporting nearly 300,000 illegal migrants and visa violators, according to Tziki Sela, head of OZ in Israel’s Immigration Authority.
Criticism by some members of parliament, and religious and community leaders, forced Prime Minister Binyamin Netanyahu to postpone the deportation of families of migrant foreign workers with children (due to begin on August 1st) for three months.
Meanwhile, an official OZ report said 700 migrant workers without children had been deported since June 1st 2009, and 2,000 had ‘left willingly’.
On October 12th, a parliament committee on migrant workers decided to start deporting children by the middle of 2010 when schools close.
Deportations are set to take place despite a ‘massive’ (according to top Israeli officials) anti-deportation campaign led by several NGOs and aid organisations, including Moked, the hotline for migrant workers.
Karen Tal, manager of the Bialik-Rogozin public school in southern Tel Aviv, told reporters some 302 children in the school (out of 784) are up for deportation if Yishai does not change his mind.
Tal spoke about the hardships and uncertainty faced by the children since June, when the intention to deport them was revealed.
According to the 2008 Annual Poverty Report by Israel’s National Insurance Institute (NII), published in Hebrew on November 2nd, one in four Israelis (one in three of them children) is living below the poverty line.
NII defines the family poverty line as being 50 percent of median family income after tax.
The total number of poor – some 1,651,300 people including 783,600 children under the age of 18 – is a slight increase on the 1,630,400 recorded in 2007.
Some NGOs in Israel are concerned that with the current global economic crisis more people will fall below the NII-defined poverty line in 2010.