first part of Kav Laoved’s special report on the status of Thai workers in Israel discussed state authorities’ treatment of these workers. The following is an examination of the typical mistreatment suffered by Thai workers.
Suspension of wages
The majority of complaints lodged by workers with Kav Laoved concern a suspension of wages. Sometimes employers experiencing problems will stop paying employee wages. In some cases, wages have been suspended for months. But other employers systematically suspend workers’ wages as a way of restricting their freedom and preventing their “escape.” Other methods used to prevent the escape of workers is to give the worker a reduced living wage and transfer the rest of the money to Thailand, without giving the worker the freedom to choose the amount he wants to retain from his salary.
Sums to human resource companies
Workers are required to pay brokerage fees of $4,000-7,000 to human resource companies in Thailand working in cooperation with Israeli human resource companies. It is in the interest of these companies to bring in as many workers as possible to Israel. Some of the companies even pay farmers $500-1,500 for each worker they bring to Israel.
Last week, our office received a phone call from a farmer who refused to identify himself. He told us that a representative of a human resource company had offered to pay him $1,000 in cash for each worker he imported from Thailand. The company also offered to pay for the worker’s health insurance for two years and his vacation in Thailand. Recently, the brokerage fee has been increased to $7,000 to pay for the aforementioned benefits. The companies claim this is due to the fact that the entry into Israel law was amended to allow workers to stay in Israel for five years, but in fact the companies and the employers turn workers over to the police or forcibly take them to the Ben-Gurion Airport after they have been only two years in Israel, simply to bring in new workers to take their place. With the lift on the freeze on work permits in this sector in January 2005, we have begun to receive phone complaints from workers who were taken to the Ben-Gurion Airport against their will.
The Ministry of Industry’s oversight department for human resource companies—to which we send complaints against these companies—lacks authority and the ability to impose punitive measures. At best, after extensive investigation, the department may suspend the company’s license, but the company continues to work through other companies. For example, the Sapir Company sent many of its workers to employers without work permits; as a result, the workers were arrested. Following an investigation by the Ministry of Industry, the company’s permit was suspended, but it continued to work under cover of several paper companies and the arrests of workers continue.
Too many work permits for farmers
We learned of another phenomenon from employers who were in urgent need of more human resources, but received only a few permits: Representatives from human resource companies encourage employers to deceive the competent unit and ask for agricultural work permits, although they have no work for them. These farmers receive about $1,000 as a fee for importing the workers and “sell” them as soon as they reach Israel. The human resource company places the workers with another employer for a very short period, each time without arranging for the visas required by law. In some cases, workers are not paid at all before being transferred to another employer and are arrested in a police raid without having done anything. In one case we encountered, the Ministry of Interior released the workers and turned them over to the employers who brought them to Israel (although they had never worked for them); 30 minutes later, the workers were turned over to the employer where they had just been arrested.
Imprisonment and deportation
Since employers in agriculture regularly confiscate and hold workers’ passports, most workers know nothing about obtaining a legal residency visa. Sometimes the employer does not extend the residency visas with the Interior Ministry in order to avoid paying the fee for employing foreign workers. In many cases, human resource companies transfer the workers to another employer without coordinating with the Interior Ministry. When the police carry out a raid, the workers discover for the first time that although they have paid the brokerage fee to work legally in Israel, they are in fact illegal residents and they are carted off to prison.
On a visit to the Renaissance Prison in Nazareth, we met with workers whose only crime was that the Interior Ministry had reduced the number of permits it handed out to employers. As a result, the Matan Human Resource Company took the workers to the Immigration Police, telling them that the police would find them new employers. The workers were detained for about a month until they were given legal status under the “closed skies” regime.*
In most cases, the fact that the worker does not have his passport in his possession increases his risk of deportation because the closed skies regime only applies to workers who are arrested with their passports in their possession or those whose passports are brought to them in the detention facility within eight days of their arrest. We have seen cases in which employers only bring in the passports in their possession nine days after the arrest, thus sentencing the worker to deportation. They also bring only part of the worker’s wage, barely enough to cover the cost of the return trip to Thailand.
When Thai workers are arrested, they appear before the court unable to understand the process. The court does not use translators, and in many of the case with which we have dealt, there has been no connection between the story told to us by the worker using a translator and the story recorded in the court documents. In general, it is written in the court document that the worker speaks Hebrew or that the court used a veteran worker who speaks Hebrew with great difficulty.
Many workers have been deported simply because the Immigration Police have extra tickets to Thailand. This, for example, happened with a worker who had come to Israel through the Sapir Human Resource Company. He was arrested in his workplace, where the company had placed him; his passport was with his employer. In less than two weeks, he was deported to Thailand, although he had only been in Israel nine months. Another worker we met in the Renaissance Prison was arrested a year after his arrival in Israel, during which he worked for an employer who apparently did not extend his visa. His passport was also in the possession of his employer, and we could only prevent his deportation from Israel after an administrative petition.
In that worker’s case, a petition was also filed with the Tel Aviv District court. The reason he was considered illegal, according to the public prosecutor, was that his passport was only brought to the prison nine days after his arrest, whereas under the closed skies regime, it must be brought within eight days of the arrest. Thus, the worker is punished because his employer broke the law. Given these conditions, the prosecutor agreed to release the worker to work with a new employer even without holding a hearing on the petition.
The workers are chattel
The system of making the worker’s residency permit dependent on a particular employer increases the employer’s power and turns the worker into property. In several communications with employers who hire Thai laborers, we got the impression that they consider the labor their own private property. For example, as part of our student activities, we tried to arrange a meeting with Thai workers at the Hagoshrim Kibbutz. The man responsible for the workers in the kibbutz learned of this and called angrily to ask who would be meeting with his workers without his permission. Even after we explained that the meetings had been arranged in the evening after work, assuming that what the worker does in his free time is none of his employer’s business, the official refused to allow the workers to meet us. In another case, workers from a town in the south came to us to tell us that they had not been paid for four months. The workers were afraid to leave the town and meet us. It turned out that the employer habitually checked up on them throughout the day with his dog, to make sure that they did not try to escape.
High prices in grocers
Other people exploit the weakness of Thai workers. For example, stores that sell them both Israeli and Thai food habitually hike up the prices, exploiting the workers’ distance from any big cities. Workers in one city in Araba went to the community council to ask that itinerant grocers be allowed to enter the community, but their request was rejected. Due to the refusal to allow competition and due to the community’s distance from other cities, the workers were forced to continue buying their needs from the one grocer in the community, spending a large portion of their wages on basic needs.
A visit to the Renaissance Prison in Nazareth
During a visit to the Renaissance Prison (formerly a hotel at the southern entrance to Nazareth), we found that Thai workers were desperate and powerless, particularly given the absence of anyone in the prison administration who spoke their language and given they did not know their destiny (deportation or release). In addition, the workers complained to us that the prison food was not suitable for them: The diet in Southeast Asia depends on rice as a main element in all three meals of the day, but in the prison, prisoners were only given rice once a week. In contrast, bread, a major element in prison food, is not something the prisoners habitually eat.
The poor conditions of workers in the Renaissance Prison represent one side of the coin. On the other side, we witnessed attempts by the police to conceal complaints from Thai workers about assaults. This occurred during a clash between a resident of Ami Oz and Thai workers, who complained at the Ofakim police department on July 25, 2003, that he assaulted them. On June 10, 2005, the workers rode a bulldozer on the village’s dirt road. They say that David Tzoria, a resident of Ami Oz, approached them from the opposite direction and ordered them to stop. He threatened the, with a rifle he was carrying and began beating them with the butt of the rifle. He did so suspecting they had stolen a few chickens from his farm.
The workers, who required medical treatment, went to the Ofakim police with their employer and lodged a complaint of the assault. A few days after the complaint was filed, our representative in the south went to the police department; it turned out that the police had not even registered the complaint. The workers went to the police once more and the complaint was registered this time. Tzoria said that the workers had attacked him and that he was only defending himself. Two months passed between the attack and the clash in the police department between the workers and the assailant. During that time, the workers and their employer were threatened to withdraw the complaint. A few days before the confrontation, the employer was summoned to the police and was asked to bring the workers’ drivers’ licenses. Thai workers in most farming communities drive tractors without a license with no interference from anyone. This time, however, the police decided to examine the licenses. The Ofakim police decided to close the case due to the lack of evidence; the workers objected to the decision.
Conclusion: Silent consent for increased exploitation
Last year, the Israeli government allocated 26,000 visas for agricultural workers. Farmers used about 24,800 of these, according to statistics presented by Efraim Cohen, head of the foreign workers’ unit, during a session of the Knesset Foreign Workers Committee held in October of last year. Most of the workers brought to Israel to work in agriculture come from Thailand. While still in Thailand, they receive specific information about the nature of the work in Israel, but this information includes nothing to prepare them for what they face here. They do not speak Hebrew, and only a very few understand the language here; most do not speak English. This creates communication problems between Thai workers and employers, and they depend on the help of friends at work or the staff of the Thai embassy, who can offer only limited help. They may also depend on the help of translators with the human resource companies that brought them here, but these, too, cannot be relied upon to help.
The wide-scale violation of employment conditions and the wages of Thai workers in agriculture, the relative ease with which these rights can be violated, and the limited application of the law to preserve their rights raise fears that the silence on the part of all those charged to oversee and protect foreign workers is in fact consent for what happens. We can only conclude that bringing in Thai agricultural workers without protecting their rights is a method devised by the Israeli government to subsidize farmers.