In recent months, the media has aired deplorable images of Thai workers who live in duck pens, metal tanks, or animal dens virtually every week, to the great displeasure of viewers. A dry report accompanies the cameras as they focus on these informal living spaces: “The Immigration Police says that the workers are illegals. They were arrested and will be sent back to their countries.” The story does not address the circumstances that led these workers to become accustomed to these extremely harsh living conditions.
Up until two years ago, Thai workers rarely contacted Kav Laoved. Very little was known about their employment conditions and the pervasive problems that plague them. Kav Laoved thought that this was a closed community, and that due to cultural differences, its members did not tend to complain about their situation. In addition, we thought that the wages of foreign workers in agriculture were higher than in other fields. While the workers do not receive the full minimum wage, considering the actual number of hours they work, they at least receive their reduced wage regularly. This was until social services’ students—as part of a project in cooperation with Tel Hai College in the north—began going out once a week to the homes of Thai workers. Following the students’ field activities, complaints gradually began to reach us from the workers, revealing an unfortunate reality of exploitation and total powerlessness.
The basic problem of Thai workers was not necessarily a lack of awareness of their rights, but their fear of their employer and their inability to improve their situation. At any moment, the employer can arbitrarily decide to fire the workers, who will have no alternative job since, unlike home care and construction workers, workers in agriculture are not allowed to move to a new employer. Human resource companies and employers prefer to bring new workers from abroad and split the brokerage fee. Thus, a worker who does not show his employer his desire to continue working will find himself at the airport in spite of himself or will be forced to “escape” and look for a new job without a work permit.
For this reason, Thai workers must be patient and continue to work for their legal employers, even if it involves a violation of their rights in the form of reduced wages, delayed wages for several months, the confiscation of their passports by employers (a widespread, if illegal practice), working additional long hours, or working with hazardous pesticides without protection. In the past, Thai workers came for only two years; now, after the Entry to Israel Law was amended to allow them to remain in Israel five years, human resource companies have raised the brokerage fee paid by the workers to $7,000. The first year, the laborers work simply to pay the debt, and any delayed wages during this period increase the debt with accumulated interest, gravely harming the workers. Despite the huge sums paid by workers to extend their period of residency, in general they are forced to sign a two-year contract, with promises that it will be extended in the future. After a year has passed, some human resource companies try to induce the arrest and deportation of workers. Workers who know that their employers intend to replace them in a year or two—during which time they are sinking into debt—prefer to “escape” to avoid being returned to Thailand against their will.
Thai workers in agriculture
There are two primary reasons for this situation:
Inability to complain: Thai workers are employed in agricultural communities, particularly in peripheral areas far-removed from cities. This geographic remoteness causes intense problems. Thais do not speak Hebrew and most do not speak English. Thus it is very difficult for them to turn to outside sources for help. Most Thais know no one else to complain to but the Thai embassy, which is in most cases impotent and unable to offer help. In addition, workers often lodge complaints with translators working with the human resource companies who brought them to Israel , but to know avail. (Sometimes they are returned to Thailand as a “solution” to their problems.) In general, the workers do not know their employer’s full name, and their passports are often in his possession. Without a passport, it is difficult to help them.
Inability to find another job: Low-wage workers who work additional hours and live in difficult, inappropriate conditions are afraid to file complaints. Any direct confrontation with their employer entails the risk of dismissal or forced expulsion. Losing their jobs means they will lose their legal status in the country and be susceptible to arrest and deportation. Even in cases in which the worker’s complaint is justified and inspectors with the Ministry of Industry’s law enforcement unit have made grave findings, the state refuses to help the workers resolve their problem by placing them with another authorized employer. One worker filed a complaint with Ms. Rina Konforti, a representative of the Interior Ministry at the Ben-Gurion Airport . The worker said he had complained to the police about the human resource company that brought him to Israel and then left him on his own without providing an employer. The response was brief: The worker would be given a new work visa after he found himself an employer willing to hire him.
The system for changing jobs is devoid of content in the agricultural sector. Without the intervention of the authorities, workers will not be able to find an employer with unused work permits. They prefer to bring new workers from abroad. Workers who were not paid for months or who were asked to work with pesticides without sufficient protection and complained remained without jobs. Some were arrested in the end.
The Ministry of Interior and the “closed skies” regime
In theory, the closed skies regime is applied in the agricultural sector. This system requires the farmer who wants to bring in new workers to first head to the prisons. If there are no workers for him among the detainees, he is allowed –after a month-long waiting period– to import new workers directly from Thailand . In practice, however, the Immigration Police prefer to expel workers and fill up the planes to meet their deportation quotas. The workers are the ones who pay the price. (The workers we met with were fully legal workers.) The workers make the humiliating journey from arrest to detention in prison, and finally are returned to countries of origin despite their relatively short stay in Israel .
The Ministry of Interior strongly refuses to place workers who have left their employers with good cause with new employers with unused work permits, despite the information they have about the aforementioned employers. The Interior Ministry is the only authority capable of forcing employers to absorb workers already residing in Israel instead of importing new workers from abroad (as is the case of the detained workers under the closed skies regime). But apparently the Interior Ministry has no interest in limiting the importation of more workers and ending the accompanying brokerage industry. In addition to these measures, there are, of course, “relationships.” For example, it was found that Minister Gideon Ezra (then deputy minister) shirked his duty by enabling one of his friends—the owner of a human resource company—to obtain permits to bring in new Thai workers, instead of requiring him to turn to the prisons and obtain detained workers. This issue was discussed in a joint session of the Knesset Foreign Workers Committee and the Comptroller Committee on June 23, 2004. It is no wonder that despite the closed skies policy, as detained workers are deported from Israel , thousands of new workers are brought to Israel from Thailand .
Given the debts incurred by workers to pay their brokerage fees and given the deportation policy, in order for workers to dare to demand their rights or file a complaint they must be guaranteed a new job. But this option is not available for Thai workers in agriculture. The only solution to this unbearable situation is for the workers to pack their bags and “escape.” In general, the worker leaves behind his passport, being held by the employer. Running away entails the risk of arrest and deportation, but for the worker, who must earn a living, it is the only way. In these situations, workers are employed without medical insurance and often live in informal dwellings (in the forest or vacant buildings). Some workers flee behind the Green Line, to Gush Katif in Gaza , their fear of the Immigration Police and deportation much greater than their fears of entering a war zone.