As Israeli rockets whizzed overhead bombarding Gaza, migrant labourers were ordered to work on while their employer took his dogs to safety. Mya Guarnieri reports on the plight of the farm hands trapped by debt TEL AVIV // During Israel's three-week war on Gaza earlier this year, Sak, and a dozen other Thai labourers, watched as rockets whizzed over head, and in some cases, fell just 50 metres from the farm where they were working in southern Israel.
Their employer, according to Sak, who requested his real name not be used, refused to allow them to stop working. When the air raid siren sounded, the employer took his dogs, not his workers, to the bomb shelter with him. "We were scared," said Sak, 36, from north-east Thailand. "But our employer said, 'don't worry, go to work'." It was just one example cited in a recent report by Kav LaOved, a non-governmental group which advocates on behalf of the rights of foreign workers in Israel, of how Thai migrants are being exploited in the country.
The men were rescued from the farm about three weeks ago and are being held at a shelter for workers in Tel Aviv. The farm's owner is currently being investigated by the immigration police for breaching Israeli labour laws. Under current legislation, all employees are entitled to a 36-hour rest period every week. The Thais on the farm said they were forced to work seven days a week, even during the war.
Israel is home to almost half a million migrant labourers, 30,000 of who are employed in agriculture. Ironically, farming was once considered a cornerstone of Israel's foundation. "Agricultural work was fulfilment of the Zionist dream - it connects with the land [Israelis] fought so hard for. Back in the 1940s and 50s, it was one of the most highly admired jobs," said Tally Kritzman, an Israeli expert on foreign labour.
But today, working the land is no longer revered. According to Ms Kritzman, exploitation of migrant workers is widespread, affecting all areas, not just the agricultural sector. However, Kav LaOved's report in October revealed that those employed in agriculture - a sector that is dominated by Thai migrant labourers - are subject to "wide and systematic exploitation" and face "complete abandonment by government authorities".
According to the report, Thais are "the most exploited of all workers" in Israel, but they are not the only ones. In 2009, 14 employers were found guilty of violating foreign workers law and taken to court. The complaints ranged from providing accommodation "not fit for a human dwelling" to non-payment of wages to 'exploitation and fraud'. Employers were ordered to pay fines, some as high as 900,000 shekels. Not all of the convicted have complied with the orders.
Kav LaOved says the list "includes only a small fraction of the complaints we receive". Other cases, including those of the Thai labourers, are still under investigation. Because of the ongoing investigation, the eight Thais who met The National on Saturday requested anonymity. They said they were paid about US$3 an hour - below the legal minimum wage of $5 an hour. As well as their farming chores, they were also made to wash cars, clean houses and work as handymen - without compensation.
Four men lived in a 10-square-metre room, for which they were charged rent. "The roof leaked. The water came up to here when it rained," Sak said, pointing to his calf. He said cockroaches, rats, "anything that can move" would enter their living quarters. But as bad as it was, the men said they lived in constant fear of being sent back to their hometowns, where they were in deep debt to black market lenders.
Each said they had borrowed the 400,000 baht ($10,000) agencies had charged to find them work in Israel, despite the fact that Israel mandates that a finding fee be capped at $800. "The biggest fear of the Thai worker is to be sent back to Thailand. It's like a death sentence," said Kessie Gonen, a Kav LaOved caseworker and translator. Wages are not high enough in Thailand to pay back loans, Ms Gonen said.
And the little property they own has often been used as collateral, so that non-payment of the debt would mean the worker and his family could end up homeless. Lacking both Hebrew and English, the men faced further isolation they could not communicate with the Israelis around them. Tom Mehager, Kav LaOved's Thai workers' co-ordinator, said the physical and social isolation of Thai migrant labourers makes them ripe for exploitation.
"The other groups who have better English fare better," he said. Ms Gonen has travelled around the country checking on the state of Thai workers. She said she has yet to find a single farm that is 100 per cent in compliance with the law. While sometimes, it is something relatively small, like the workers are not receiving paid holidays, most of the time the violations are much more severe. There have also been reports of injuries resulting from working with machinery and chemicals without safety gear, including severe respiratory problems from spraying pesticides without adequate masks.
Dan, 45, who also requested his real name not be used, has been in custody of the state for the past six months after being removed from the farm at the urging of Kav LaOved. Dan developed rashes and boils on his hands and arms from the preservatives he had to apply to vegetables - his employer provided him with short, flimsy gloves that did not adequately protect his skin. Mr Mehager says Kav LaOved reports all labour law violations to the ministry of industry, trade and labour. But because the ministry does not have translators, it does all its investigations without collecting testimony from the workers. This makes prosecution that much harder, Mr Mehager said.
Meir Shpigler, a lawyer for the ministry's foreign worker unit, said that 80 cases were opened every month against employees. On Thursday, he said, four cases were open that involve possible violations against Thai workers. "We are putting a lot of effort towards ensuring that all the foreign workers are getting all of their rights." * The National