Israel's ambassador to Thailand, Simon Roded, last month sought to dismiss a new Human Rights Watch report that exposes abuses against Thai workers employed in Israel's agricultural sector, saying it wasn't "serious". On Nation Multimedia's NOW26 televisi
Roded didn’t specify exactly what was “unfounded” about the serious abuses that 173 Thai workers in Israel described to us. I was one of two researchers who, along with representatives from Israeli rights group Kav LaOved, travelled to 10 farms across Israel to interview Thai migrant workers.
What we saw was truly shocking. We found Thai workers living and working in squalid conditions and suffering dreadful instances of mistreatment. One worker said he felt “like dead meat” after a working day that typically began at 4.30am and ended at 7pm. None of the workers we interviewed said they were paid Israel’s minimum wage. Many reported health problems, including dizziness, nausea, breathing difficulties, skin rashes, and other illnesses that they experienced after spraying pesticides without adequate protective equipment. Some showed medicine that their families had sent from Thailand in the absence of healthcare services in Israel.
Among those we spoke to were colleagues of Praiwan Seesukha, one of the 122 Thai workers who, according to the Israeli Health Ministry, died in Israel between 2008 and 2013.
While he questioned the Human Rights Watch research, Ambassador Roded said the Israeli government takes each and every allegation in the report seriously. Yet, when Praiwan died in 2013 nobody investigated whether his death could have been linked to his living and working conditions. In fact, 22 of those 122 deaths weren’t investigated at all by the Israeli authorities and another 43 were put down to Sudden Unexplained Nocturnal Death Syndrome without further explanation.
Instead of playing “shoot-the-messenger”, Ambassador Roded should pledge to the Thai people that his government takes these deaths seriously and will conduct thorough and credible investigations. And he should promise that his government will hold employers accountable for the dreadful living conditions of Thai workers, such as those shown in the video we released with the report.
The report doesn’t purport to be a comprehensive survey of the experience of all Thai workers in Israel, some of whom may enjoy the sort of work conditions stipulated by Israeli laws and regulations and the government handbook issued to Thai workers when they arrive in the country. But our research reveals the conditions that many Thai workers are actually facing, and documents the authorities’ failure to implement Israel’s own labour law requirements, leaving workers who experience abuse at the hands of employers with insufficient protection and little hope of remedy.
If Ambassador Roded and his government want to get a sense of the scale of the problem we witnessed, they should visit Kav LaOved’s office in Tel Aviv, where every week dedicated staff members meet with about 40 Thai workers individually and respond by phone to about 150 complaints. The high number of complaints reflects our central finding: Israel has good laws in place to protect these workers but it is not enforcing them properly.
Instead of trying to discredit the report by questioning its methodology (and making baseless insinuations of anti-Israel bias against Human Rights Watch) Ambassador Roded should impress upon his superiors in Tel Aviv that the labour law is not being properly enforced to protect Thais. The number of Thai workers returning home in coffins can only negatively affect Thai-Israel relations.
Ambassador Roded might also have acknowledged our praise for the labour recruitment compact between the Israeli and Thai governments. That agreement has significantly reduced the recruitment fees that Thai workers have to pay to secure work in Israel, where they provide the labouring backbone of Israeli agriculture.
Israel’s government needs to recognise the contribution that Thai workers make and play fair with them – by living up to its laws, regulations and promises to ensure that they are protected.
Nicholas McGeehan is a Middle East researcher at Human Rights Watch.