Labor advocates set out to explain to Thai agricultural workers what rights they have in Israel. Instead, they are intimidated and chased away by the workers’ employers.
By Angie Hsu
In the rush before leaving Tel Aviv for the Arava Desert Friday morning, I ran into the bathroom and grabbed two bottles of sunscreen. It was the last item on my checklist, for myself, two co-workers and one volunteer from Kav LaOved – Worker’s Hotline. We were going to spend two days visiting Thai migrant agricultural workers in various moshavim in the Arava; I was told the weekend in the South was going to “feel like summer.” Relieved that I had remembered the sunscreen, I felt ready to go: we had flyers about labor rights in Thai to give to the workers and forms if they wanted to file complaints; we had rented a car and I had booked a place to stay for the night. In retrospect, it’s comical how much I had prepared for sun exposure, and how little for the hostility we would face.
Kav LaOved visits Thai agricultural workers around the country who live and work in various Israeli kibbutzim and moshavim about once a month. We bring informational material, answer questions, take photographs of their living and working conditions, and write down complaints workers want to file to various governmental bodies. Most of what we see and hear from the Thai workers is routine: salaries far under the minimum wage and almost total lack of social rights, harsh and often inhumane living conditions, and the persistent enthusiasm with which workers receive us. Rarely have employers intervened during these visits. In some cases, they have even understood and accepted our role as a labor rights organization. In others, they have asked us to leave. But in general, these Saturday visits go by without too many surprises.
On our way to the first stop of the day, Moshav Tzofar, we didn’t expect anything different. As we drove to the meeting spot the workers designated, however, we noticed there were no workers there, and instead we saw around five men sitting together in a tight circle. Our first instinct was correct — they were employers. We kept driving to an open park area, where we saw workers starting to gather. As we got out of the car, a man told us we had to leave, that parking wasn’t allowed. We obliged, and pulled away as another two trucks pulled up behind us. My two colleagues started to talk to the workers, as I moved the car. By the time I returned, a small crowd of employers had gathered, about 20 feet from the workers.
I went up to them, and introduced myself as the coordinator for agricultural workers from Kav LaOved. I was immediately met with accusations, pointing, cynical jokes, laughing, and multiple cameras in my face, taking photos and videos of me. The group of employers grew to over 15, and I attempted to level with them about why we had come. They continued to barrage me with questions and accusations. If they paid the workers all their rights as they claimed they did, I said, our presence shouldn’t bother them. My explanations met deaf ears, and I began to feel uncomfortable, surrounded by a semi-circle of employers. Laughing, one man told me, “We think your parents didn’t hit you enough as a child, so now you go around thinking you can do whatever you want.”
Our Thai translator and fieldworker tried to keep with the planned presentation and Q&A with the workers, but the tension was palpable for everyone. Several employers told me that we at Kav LaOved were guilty for all the damage that would take place. When I pressed for an explanation of what that meant, he said, “70 percent of the workers here right now won’t be working for us next week.” As I asserted that employers could not fire workers for meeting with us to learn about their rights, he continued to say it would be on us. Another employer said to me, “We’re leftists! Just you wait for the others to come. They won’t be as nice to you as we are.” We felt threatened and left soon after.
Despite the ordeal at our first stop, we decided to continue to Moshav Hatzava, where the workers were waiting for us already. We arrived, to find dozens of workers walking towards us to an open parking lot by the basketball courts. Moshav residents going about their Friday night walked and drove by us. Over 100 workers eventually arrived, and we were able to hand out materials and begin answering questions. Suddenly, a car drove up and I walked over to the driver’s seat. Again, I introduced myself, and right away he told us to leave. I explained we were about to finish and planned to leave. A few minutes later when I approached him, he waved me off, saying that he was on the phone with the police. We felt responsible for our own well-being and that of the workers, and wanted to avoid any escalation of the tension. We told the workers to leave as we headed toward our own car.
We were grateful that the next group was willing to meet us outside their moshav at a nearly empty gas station. We sat at the plastic picnic tables outside, and finally felt like we didn’t have to look over our shoulders, or tense up as men passed by us. When the workers arrived, we were able to take our time talking to them and answering questions. Like most Thai workers in the country, they haven’t received payslips in over a year. One worker had a payslip in Hebrew from 2015, and they were eager to understand what was written there. Our translator scribbled down the Thai translations of the payslip, as all the workers looked on.
A final group, in Moshav Idan, had arranged themselves for a meeting, and while we were tired and anxious, we decided to go. The workers directed us to a soccer field where they had already begun to gather in front of the stands. On two occasions cars pulled up to the edge of the field. Each time, I went up and introduced myself and they said they were curious residents. On the third occasion, though, the car didn’t stop at the edge. It kept on driving onto the field, heading directly at us. I stopped walking towards the car, and others instinctively stood up. The driver stopped suddenly, mere feet from us, and blasted the vehicle’s horn for over 10 seconds. He jumped out and yelled at us to leave, walking angrily in circles around the group. Our team went to our car right away, and as we tried to pull out, we saw that other cars had arrived, and one was even blocking our way out. That car moved, and we drove away. In the total darkness of the Arava as we drove, one of the workers called to say they saw cars following us. During the surreal 20-minute drive back to where we were staying, I constantly checked the rearview mirror.
While we had prepared meetings with workers for Saturday as well, we cancelled all of the group meetings and decided to opt for meeting only small groups. In Ein Yahav, after meeting a group of six, one of the workers said he would walk two of us to another group that was waiting. Ten minutes into our walk, we noticed we were being followed. At the same time, a worker called us to say the employers were “waiting for us” in the workers’ living space. We called our volunteer to pick us up. When she reached our location, the people who had been following us began to take photos of the car, the license plate, and her. Seconds after we got into the car, a man on a motorcycle sped towards us and rode closely behind us until we got to the gate of the moshav, when he turned around.
Although we cancelled the large group meetings, in Faran over 40 workers had already gathered to meet us. After hearing that employers were preventing us from seeing workers, this group decided to meet us outside of the entrance. On our way there, the workers called us and said the employers had arrived, had told them to disperse and leave, and were waiting for us. While it was an extremely difficult decision, we ultimately decided to not go. After everything that had already happened in the last 24 hours, we had no confidence we would be able to interact with the workers productively. More than that, we had no confidence that we wouldn’t be met with aggression and intimidation.
We were able to successfully meet with a couple of small groups after that, driving deep into the fields on dirt roads, so deep that when leaving a worker would need to lead us out. As we explained to the workers about their rights to minimum wage, overtime hours, breaks during the work day, and more, at every sound we snapped our heads around, and I instinctively reached for the car keys. Later, we released our anxiety with laughter at this “Wild West” of the Arava, where we had been chased through the desert like bandits.
What was so dangerous about us, about what we were doing? What were the employers so afraid of?
They are afraid that the workers will demand their rights. That they will demand the minimum wage, that they will demand to have vacation and holidays, that they will demand precisely what Israeli workers demand — what they are entitled to by law. The bigger picture of the agricultural sector is massively complex, and farmers face their own battles with the government, with regulations, with the weather, with globalization. But the story from this weekend was simple and clear: these workers have every right to gather and receive information about their rights, as workers and as human beings. What we experienced suggests that these employers treat Thai workers as their property, deciding what they do, where they can be, and even who they can meet, even on Saturday, their only day off.
What we saw, over and over again, was the employers’ fear of us manifested into hostility, and a complete unwillingness to even speak with us and understand what we are doing. If this is how they treated us, we can only imagine how they react to workers who ask for their rights. In such an atmosphere, it is easy to understand why most workers don’t even dare ask.
The 22,000 Thai agricultural workers in Israel are nearly invisible. Every day, we eat the food that they have worked to produce, without a second thought about their existence in this country. After this weekend, it is clear that some employers want to keep them as invisible as possible, for as long as possible. For all of our efforts, we failed to see so many of them. Unless the basic protections to these workers are upheld, they will remain vulnerable and exploited outside of our view. They will continue to be treated as property and equipment, and not as people.
Thai voices bounced in the car as more workers called, asking us to come. With heavy hearts as we drove away, we apologized and said we wouldn’t be coming.
Angie Hsu is the agricultural workers coordinator at Kav LaOved — Worker’s Hotline.