Home Field – Visiting agricultural workers in Israel, part 5

In a series of posts based on field visits and meetings with migrant workers in Israel, Noa Shauer and Shiraz Grinbaum highlight the conditions, hardships and exploitation of foreign workers. In part 5, they met with agricultural workers in the northern Israeli moshavim of Sdei Trumot and Revayah, trying to re-evaluate their working conditions after a strike.

Text by: Omri Paz/Kav LaOved, Photos: Shiraz Grinbaum/Activestills.org, read part 4, part 3, part 2, and part 1

A worker in the residence corridor. (Activestills.org)
A worker in the residence corridor. (Activestills.org)

In February, we paid a visit to the moshav (agricultural settlement) of Sdei Trumot in order to meet with the workers who were being maltreated by their employers for going on strike to protest their poor living and working conditions. We wanted to re-evaluate the working conditions in this moshav. We also visited workers from the neighboring moshav, Revayah, who told us about their conditions. The meeting was held in the presence of 30 workers in the field close to the main road – far from the eyes of their employers.

We were told by the workers of Revayah that they earn 140 NIS for every eight-hour workday (17.5 per hour), and are not paid for extra hours. Even worse, the workers said that their employer holds their worker cards and write down their work hours himself. They added that the employer takes advantage of this by inserting changes to their worksheet as he pleases.

The workers from Revayah normally receive their pay in cash at a delay of about two weeks. They then pass it to an intermediary who is trusted with transferring the money to bank accounts in Thailand. We explained to the workers that this practice is illegal since the law states that employers have to open an Israeli bank account for each of their employees.

The workers from both Moshavim reported that they do not have their health maintenance organization membership card (“Kupat Holim”card) on them since the employer holds them. Moreover, they said that the absence of a translator means that they are unable to make appointments with the doctors in the local clinics where they are treated. Consequently this has created a fear among the workers that misunderstandings between them and their doctors may result in harmful medical treatment.

A view on a warehouse used as a residence workers. (Activestills.org)
A view on a warehouse used as a residence workers. (Activestills.org)

Maltreatment of workers after the strike

The aim of Kav LaOved’s (an Israeli worker’s rights NGO) visit to Sdei Trumot during February was to support the workers and hear about their recent strike. We also wanted to find out more about the way the workers were being treated by their employer prior to the strike. Sadly, we learned that even after the strike, the workers were still being mistreated by their employer.

According to the workers, shortly after the strike, a police car arrived to the scene and, based on the employer’s report, took one of the workers (whom they assumed to be a leader of the strike) into custody. The action of the police in the case described above, and in particular the absence of a translator, is illegal and raises many questions. Following the request of the employer, three other workers who participated were transferred with the help of the police to different employers in the area. Every day a different worker was transferred to a different employer in order to sow fear among the remaining workers. According to the law, transferring a worker can be done only after the employer has received a permit and a license from the Ministry of Immigration that allows him/her to do so (each worker is registered under his employer). In this case, it seems unlikely that these transfers were executed in accordance with the law.

The workers’ quarters in Revayah do not meet the conditions set by law (Migrant Workers Law, 1991). Workers live in some sort of large shed, partially made of tin, which include bedrooms, a kitchen, toilets and a shower. Every tiny room is occupied by three workers. Each room has just enough space for three beds and not much more. The mattresses were either found on the street or bought by the workers themselves. Since there are no closets, the workers’ clothes are hung or thrown around the structure and its surroundings.

The kitchen is infested with flies and full of signs of decay, the toilets and showers are also in a very bad state: full of rust and filth. The shed is very hot because of the weather and the material from which the shed is made. Despite this, the workers claim that the employers did not agree to supply them with cooling fans and therefore the workers had to pay for them from their own pockets (in Sdei Trumot the employer agreed to purchase fans only if the workers would work more hours for them).

The small rooms of 3-4 meters contains up to three beds. (Activestills.org)
The small rooms contains up to three beds. (Activestills.org)
A view on the toilet in the residence workers. (Activestills.org)
A view of the toilet in the workers’ living quarters. (Activestills.org)

Men for agriculture, women for housekeeping

Among the tens of workers who participated in the meeting, “T’s” story stood out in particular. T came to Israel together with her spouse three-and-half years ago. Since she entered the country prior to the signing of the 2012 bilateral agreement between Israel and Thailand (which defines treatment of immigrant workers), she had to pay more than $10,000 in “intermediary fees” to a human resource company in order to come to Israel.

T now earns 18 shekels an hour, and this is after her pay raise on Rosh Hashana (Jewish New Year). Before that she was paid only 14 shekels an hour. Although formally she is permitted to work only in agriculture, she told us that she works eight hours a day as a housekeeper at her employer and his mother’s house. Furthermore, she told us that every few years, the employer files a request for a migrant working couple who come together so that he can have the woman working in the house and the man in the field. However, she made it clear to us that she has no intention of filing a report against the employer because she is afraid that she and her partner will be forced to separate.

Like the rest of the workers, T fears medical examinations conducted by doctors who do not understand her language. It is impossible for her to get to the pharmacy because of its isolated location and because she does not speak Hebrew. Therefore, she says, she had to order birth control pills from Thailand. T shares a shower and two toilets with the rest of the workers on site, and says she often feels that her privacy is compromised.

Laundry done outside in buckets. (Activestills.org)
Laundry done outside in buckets. (Activestills.org)
A view on the kitchen. (Activestills.org)
A view of the kitchen. (Activestills.org)
A view on the kitchen. (Activestills.org)
A view of the kitchen. (Activestills.org)
An overview on the worker's residence (Activestills.org)
The worker’s residence (Activestills.org)

Standing up for workers rights

In light of the disgraceful working and living conditions that we witnessed during our visit, we filed a complaint on behalf of one of the workers and forwarded it to the Ministry of Economy and Immigration.

In addition, we calculated the compensation and social benefits due to some of the workers (upon their request), so that they could approach their employers and demand what is rightfully theirs. Lastly, we urged the workers to stand up for their rights, especially their right to receive medical care and the presence of translators when needed, as required by law.

The workers from Sdei Trumot revealed to us that they plan go on strike once more, as they have not received their wages for a while now. But since neither the workers nor Kav LaOved is well equipped to begin a productive protest, we advised them not to do so for the time being, until they have enlisted in a formal and accredited Israeli workers union. Nevertheless, as a defensive measure we have the ability to appeal for a restraining order to prohibit the employer from laying off workers.

Currently the Kav LaOved together with the workers are looking into to filing a law suit on behalf of most of the workers at Sdei Trumot, on the grounds of workers rights violations.

The writer is the coordinator of the agriculture workers unionizing project at Kav LaOved.