Thai Farmworkers Among Most Vulnerable in Israel to Hamas Rocket Fire
Casualties continue, due, in part, to government inaction in protecting foreign laborers
Some of those most exposed to the Hamas-led barrages against the Jewish state are not Israeli.
For years, Kav LaOved – Worker’s Hotline, an organization that seeks to protect all who work in Israel and advocates for the full application of the country’s labor laws, has asked the government to take action to protect the many Thai migrant laborers who, lacking Hebrew or English language skills, often do not know what to do in dangerous situations.
The Interior Ministry’s Population, Immigration and Border Crossings Authority said the number of foreign farmworkers in the country, most of whom are Thai, is in the low 20,000 range.
On Tuesday, two Thai workers were killed and eight others wounded by Gazan rockets in Ohad, an agricultural community located some 5 miles (8.5 kilometers) from the Strip.
It was just the latest in a string of rocket and mortar attacks that have resulted in the death and injury of Thai workers in southern Israel.
According to Adi Maoz, executive director of Kav LaOved, a female Thai agricultural worker was killed and two others were wounded in December 2004 in southern Israel. In 2011, several agricultural workers were wounded in Israel’s south. In 2014, one Thai migrant farmworker was killed near Ashkelon. Also in southern Israel, two workers were seriously wounded in 2016, one seriously wounded in August 2018, and another seriously wounded in May 2019.
Maoz attributes the casualties in part to the workers’ lack of information about what to do in such a conflict situation.
“We have affidavits of workers who come from remote villages in Thailand and get dropped off in agricultural settlements near the ‘Gaza envelope’ who told us over the years that they hear a [rocket-warning] siren and don’t know what it is,” Maoz told the Media Line. “If there is shelling on the field and they don’t hear sirens, which often do not go off for [mortar] shellings, they don’t know something is happening.”
Another problem that remains unsolved, Maoz said, is the lack of bomb shelters or protected rooms for Thai workers.
“There was some form of shelter yesterday, but it wasn’t enough for the 30 workers there,” she added.
A shortage of bomb shelters is a general problem for the Israeli public.
As Palestinians in the coastal enclave fire more rockets than ever before, organizations from around the world, for example, the International Christian Embassy Jerusalem, have led initiatives to send portable bomb shelters to Israel.
On Wednesday, Keren Kayemeth LeIsrael-Jewish National Fund (KKL-JNF) announced it had was seeking donations to fund around 100 movable bomb shelters in southern Israel.
“We will be sending portable bomb shelters to rural agricultural communities, including farmers, where we do have foreign workers, like the two unfortunate casualties yesterday,” Ronnie Vinnikov, chief development officer at KKL-JNF, told The Media Line.
While it is a nationwide problem, the need for greater protection is more acute for Thai workers, some of whose employers illegally force them to work in the fields during periods of heavy violence, without access to proper shelter.
“We’ve given many complaints to the authorities on the issues of Thai workers who are continually being sent out to work in the fields when there are rockets and shelling,” Maoz said. “It’s unbelievable.
“At the end of the day, people are killed for no good reason, just because a farmer or an agricultural establishment wanted to send them out in the field to work because they are afraid of losing their crops or not being compensated by the state or they honestly just don’t care if people die,” she added.
She said that the farm where the two Thai laborers died on Tuesday also had an incident within the past several years where a Thai worker was wounded in an almost identical situation.
“Where is the government? Why is it not doing anything? Why is it not revoking his [the farm owner’s] license to employ [foreign] workers?” Maoz asked.
Kav LaOved has called on the government to put an end to the ability of farmers to hire foreign laborers to work in perilous situations and to investigate all incidents, followed up by criminal prosecution if warranted.
Beyond Gaza-based violence, agricultural migrant workers suffer from many labor abuses.
“Living conditions are very poor and unsafe; it’s something that’s been raised many times by Kav LaOvoed with footage and testimonies and nothing changes,” Shira Abbo, spokesperson for the Hotline for Refugees and Migrants – a Tel Aviv-based non-profit organization that defends migrants’ and refugees’ rights, told The Media Line. “Yesterday, two workers paid a heavy price.”
“Many times, they are being paid below the minimum wage. The conditions in which they live and work, if people saw it they would be ashamed, “Abbo continued. “But the majority of Israelis don’t see it.”
Maoz attributes the abuses to a lack of government oversight and the strong political influence of farmers.
“The farmers here complain heavily that they are not getting enough support from the state, but it seems that what they are getting is cheap labor,” she said. “Labor law enforcement is quite weak.”
Maoz said that around six months ago, Kav LaOved rescued 16 foreign agricultural workers from Ohad, the same town where the two Thai workers died on Tuesday, because they were working in conditions that were tantamount to forced labor.
The lack of scrutiny of Thai workers’ conditions, Abbo said, is abetted by the remote locations in Israel’s periphery where they work.
“They’re practically invisible,” she said. “These kinds of things happen when no one cares.”
The Labor, Social Affairs and Social Services Ministry did not respond to requests for comment by press time.