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'Treated Like Slaves': Israel Faces Criticism Over Violations of Migrant Worker Rights

A new report from Human Rights Watch reveals terrible living conditions and untimely deaths among Israel's foreign agricultural workers, many of whom are from Thailand.
Image via AP/Oded Balilty

Praiwan Seesukha, 37, died in Israel, more than 4,000 miles away from his native Thailand in cramped makeshift sleeping quarters in a chicken shed. He spent up to 17 hours a day, seven days a week, carrying out hard labor for below the minimum wage.

Yet, despite repeated requests from advocacy groups, Israeli authorities never investigated the case and repatriated his remains without conducting an autopsy.

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"A Raw Deal," the Human Rights Watch (HRW) report on the violation of migrant workers' rights in Israel, found that Seesukha's life and death are sadly by no means unique.

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In what the report calls "a troubling pattern," 122 Thai workers have died in Israel between 2008 and 2013; including 43 from "sudden nocturnal death syndrome," five from suicide, and a further 22 from unknown causes.

Large-scale labor migration to Israel began in the 1990s after laws introduced in the wake of the Second Intifada drastically reduced the number of Palestinians granted permits to work across the border. Today, around 20,000 Thai men and women — the nationality who make up the bulk of foreign workers — are thought to be working in Israel's highly developed agricultural sector, nearly all in substandard conditions.

'They deserve more than to be housed in chicken coops and worked to the bone.'

"Given the known connections between stressful environment and this sudden death syndrome it raises a suspicion there is a connection between migrants' working conditions and the deaths," Noa Shaur, a project coordinator at Kav LaOved, an Israeli NGO providing outreach services and a hotline for migrant workers, told VICE News. "But since the authorities do not investigate it is impossible to prove," she added.

The HRW report, released on Wednesday, documents numerous violations of migrants' rights. Meeting with 10 groups of laborers the researchers found that all the workers they spoke to reported that they were paid significantly below the legal minimum wage, forced to work long hours in excess of the legal maximum, subjected to unsafe working conditions, and denied their right to change employers.

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One worker described to the reports authors' how he felt like "dead meat" at the end of a working day that typically lasted more than 14 hours. Another described how employers watched them through binoculars and "treated them like slaves."

"Workers come here to earn money, but in doing so they make huge sacrifices, leaving behind families," Nicholas McGeehan, a HRW Middle East researcher and one of the authors of "Raw Deal," told VICE News. "They deserve more than to be housed in chicken coops and worked to the bone."

In several cases documented by HRW, equipment for carrying hazardous tasks was not provided to migrants by their employers, and when it was provided it was often substandard. In other examples, a failure to give proper gas masks to workers spraying pesticides was attributed with causing serious health problems including respiratory problems, persistent coughing, blood clotting in the nose, headaches, and bouts of weakness.

In one camp, HRW observed that migrant workers were living in makeshift cardboard accommodation they had constructed in a farm shed.

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"This is absolutely common. Workers constantly report being paid below the minimum wage and unpaid wages. Most accommodations we see are falling apart or makeshift and not fit for humans to live in," Shaur told VICE News. "Workers are living in all kinds of places; old warehouses previously used to store chemicals, chicken sheds, cardboard constructions — not places the farmers would be prepared live in."

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On paper, an improvement in labor laws governing the employment of migrant workers in 1991 and a 2009 bilateral agreement between Israel and sending states should provide adequate for foreign farm laborers working in the country. However, in practice, few actions are ever taken against employers. Between 2009 and 2014 punishment for violations of rules by recruitment agencies and famers totaled a mere 145 warnings, 15 fines averaging $22,323, and one license suspension.

While multiple factors contribute to enforcement failures, according to advocacy workers, the Israeli government has an incentive not to act tough on the country's troubled farming sector.

The exemption of migrant workers from tax credits makes their labor "fruitful, valuable, and of large profit to the government," explained Shaur. "Not enforcing regulations, allowing corners to be cut, low wages to be paid, this then acts as a kind of unofficial subsidy to the farmers," she added.

"The Israeli government perhaps does not want to get tough on a powerful lobby group whose profits are already being squeezed," McGeehan told Vice News. "Thai workers complaints are easy to ignore because they don't speak English or Hebrew."

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Follow Harriet Salem on Twitter: @HarrietSalem