Jerusalem – Thai workers in Israel endure gruelling work days and squalid living conditions, according to a Human Rights Watch (HRW) report released on Wednesday.
The findings of the 48-page report, titled “A Raw Deal: Abuses of Thai Workers in Israel’s Agricultural Sector,” are based on interviewes conducted by two HRW researchers with 173 Thai labourers in Israel from April 2011.
The report contains details of rampant exploitation of Thai migrant workers, who number approximately 20,000 in Israel’s agricultural sector.
“Long hours, low wages, lack of access to healthcare, and even cardboard living quarters were common [among workers],” Nicholas McGeehan, a researcher in human trafficking, who travelled to Israel for this report, told Al Jazeera.
However, this isn’t what Thai migrants expect, according to an agreement titled: The Thailand-Israel Cooperation on the Placement of Workers (TIC), signed in 2012 by Israel, Thailand and the Organisation for Immigration, that helps facilitate migration.
As of 2014, roughly 4,000 Thai workers were expected to travel to work in Israel’s agricultural sector with an equal number departing after the maximum of 63 months, as per the TIC.
Prior to the agreement, the trip to Israel would cost Thai workers an average $10,200 paid to private companies that handled their paperwork and placement. Now, the cost has gone down to $850, a dramatic decrease.
Following their employment, Thai workers are guaranteed at least a minimum wage – 4,300 New Israeli Shekels ($1,093) per month, or 23.12 NIS ($5.88) per hour – according to the 1987 Israeli minimum wage law.
In July 2013, the average Thai made roughly $374.30 per month. Because of this, McGeehan said Thai workers found Israel an attractive destination for employment.
One Thai worker from a moshav presented HRW with a pay slip from his employer that said he was paid minimum wage and overtime for 261 hours in one month. Yet the worker contends that he actually had workdays of 12 and 13 hours, without a day off, totalling 360 hours for that month.
Upon arrival, those workers, however, found out that some Israeli employers are “taking advantage of an enthusiastic workforce”.
Workdays that far exceed 10 hours, little to no days off, wages below minimum wage, unpaid overtime, extensive work with harmful pesticides and limited access to healthcare are what await Thai migrants.
One Thai worker from a moshav, a cooperative agricultural community whose roots lie in the leftist Zionist labour movement of the 20th century, presented HRW with a pay slip from his employer that said he was paid minimum wage and overtime for 261 hours in one month.
Yet, the worker contends that he actually had workdays of 12 and 13 hours, without a day off, totalling 360 hours for that month.
While these extended work hours are arduous and go against Israeli law, a 13-hour workday would seem easy to some.
Praiwan Seesukha, a 37-year-old Thai national, had worked for over two years at a moshav near Netanya in central Israel when he was found dead in his living quarters on May 2013.
During his time there, Seesukha worked for up to 17 hours a day, seven days a week, milking cows and tending to avocados, and slept in a small farm shed that had been converted to living quarters.
Though his work conditions were strenuous, labourers who knew Seesukha told HRW he was in excellent health, and never appeared to be ill.
The cause of Seesukha’s death is unconfirmed, as his remains were repatriated to Thailand before an investigation could be conducted, despite requests by HRW.
McGeehan said that SUNDS is a “poorly understood” genetic condition, and that HRW is concerned “that deaths from exertional heat stroke – brought on by overwork in high temperatures – are being put down to SUNDS”.
Noa Shauer, coordinator for agricultural workers for Israeli workers’ rights group Kav LaOved – Workers Hotline, said that the high number of deaths, attributed to the rare condition, may be related to a lack of desire to investigate on the part of Israeli authorities.
“When they’re taken for an autopsy, a cause of death is given,” she told Al Jazeera over the phone. “But the Ministry of the Economy doesn’t check [deaths attributed to SUNDS]. It’s easy to leave this condition alone.”
When asked about the employer’s obligations concerning their workers’ healthcare, Shauer explained that “basically, the law says that the employer needs to insure the worker, and allow them sick days”.
Due to language barriers and lack of transportation, visiting the doctor presents a challenge for many Thais in Israel. Since no one is directly responsible for making sure workers make it to health facilities, Shauer said that it comes down to “the kindness of employers”, which is often insignificant.
The HRW research produced several cases in which family members living in Thailand mailed medication to their relatives in Israel to alleviate symptoms attributed to spraying pesticides without proper protection, because of their inability to access medical care.
Both Shauer and McGeehan agree that Israel has the laws in place to effectively regulate working conditions for migrants, but there is no oversight.
Knesset member Dov Khenin of the leftist Hadash party told Al Jazeera that “the picture is extremely worrying, and we should pressure the government to make the needed changes” to stop these deaths.
Speaking about the necessary changes, Khenin said that the Israeli authorities “should make better investigations of these occurrences, improve accessibility of foreign workers to health facilities, and strengthen legislation concerning foreign workers in agriculture”.
However, as of now, “there isn’t any effective enforcement [of labour laws]. Therefore, violations keep growing”, Shauer concluded.