Agriculture Ministry seeking to lure out-of-work Israelis to take up jobs on farms

Ministry promises to double wages of farmhands in fields close to the Gaza and Lebanon borders as it tries to make up for a serious manpower shortage across the agricultural sector

Sue Surkes is The Times of Israel's environment reporter

Israeli volunteers help with the pomegranate harvest at Kibbutz Kfar Menahem in south-central Israel on October 29 2023. (Yossi Zamir/Flash90)
Israeli volunteers help with the pomegranate harvest at Kibbutz Kfar Menahem in south-central Israel on October 29 2023. (Yossi Zamir/Flash90)

Amid a significant shortage in farm workers during the Israel-Gaza war, the Agriculture Ministry is teaming up with the Employment Service to match out-of-work Israelis with farmers who are short of laborers.

On Thursday, the ministry circulated a form for farmers looking to hire employees to fill, as well as a link where Israelis who are looking for such jobs can sign up.

The government has pledged to pay Israelis who are new to farm work NIS 3,000 ($780) per month for a minimum of two months, and NIS 4,000 (just over $1,000) for the third month, on top of the wage they will be paid by the farmers.

On farms close to the Gaza border in the south and the Lebanon border in the north, where a community’s residents have been evacuated, the government will double the salary of farmhands.

Agriculture Ministry director general Oren Lavi said that the Israeli agriculture sector — which comprises around 2,000 farms that grow crops — is currently suffering its worst manpower crisis since the establishment of the state.

Since the launch of the Israel-Hamas war, following the terror’s group’s deadly rampage through southern Israel, the sector has seen a severe lack of workers, due to the danger of working near the borders, the exodus of thousands of foreign workers, and the mass mobilization of IDF reservists.

A Thai worker drives his co-workers to work on the tractor, February 22, 2011. (Nati Shohat/Flash90)

Before the war, just under 30,000 foreign farmhands — mostly from Thailand — worked in Israel, some 5,000 of them on farms close to the Gaza Strip, where 75% of Israeli vegetables are produced.

On October 7, 32 Thai farm laborers were murdered and 23 were kidnapped, according to Thai government figures, among the total of some 1,400 people killed by the invaders and some 240 who were abducted to the Hamas-controlled enclave.

An injured Thai worker, front center, who was evacuated from Israel, arrives at Suvarnabhumi International Airport in Samut Prakarn Province, Thailand, October 12, 2023. (AP Photo/Sakchai Lalit)

Since then, the Thai government has flown around 8,500 of its workers home, and others have been moved to safer areas of the country, such as the Jordan Valley and the Arava desert in the far south.

Shortages have also been exacerbated by a lack of Palestinian workers from both the West Bank and the blockaded Gaza Strip, who normally work in sectors across the country, including agriculture.

While waiting for the government to intervene, a plethora of civil society groups have stepped in to recruit Israelis of all ages to volunteer in the harvest of produce across the south.

These include Leket Israel, which in normal times has 50,000 to 60,000 volunteers — mostly from companies — harvesting produce to distribute to the poor. It is currently sending busloads of volunteers to help the farmers.

Leket Israel volunteers on a farm close to the Gaza border, October 29, 2023. (Leket Israel)

Other organizations that are recruiting volunteers include HaShomer HaHadash, originally set up to help farmers deal with theft, violence, and harassment; Achim Lemeshek — which means Brothers for the Economy, and rhymes in Hebrew with the name of its parent group, the anti-overhaul protest group Achim Leneshek (Brothers in Arms); and Zav 8.

On Wednesday, the Agriculture and Finance ministries and the Knesset Finance Committee, along with the Israeli Farmers’ Association, agreed on a framework for compensating farmers for their losses, which the Knesset must still approve.

Farms located within nine kilometers (six miles) of the Lebanon border or seven kilometers (4.35 miles) of the Gaza border will be fully compensated for loss of profits. Those that are seven to 20 kilometers (12.4 miles) from either border will be able to claim up to a maximum of NIS 3 million ($780,000) in damages per month.

Further arrangements will be made for farmers that are more than 40 kilometers (just under 25 miles) from either border.

The plan will still need to be anchored in legislation in the Knesset.

To cope with a shortage of trucks and truck drivers since the start of the war — both have been recruited to the war effort — the ministry has teamed up with Truck Net, a digital transportation platform that farmers can use for free that matches needs with available vehicles.

The ministry has also encouraged men and women from pre-army academies known as mechinot to volunteer on farms, and runs a farmers’ hotline at *6016.

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