Despite war, more than 12,000 foreign workers have arrived in Israel, lawmakers told

Government working to recruit thousands of additional workers to make up for post-October 7 labor shortage, Population and Immigration Authority says

Inbal Mashash, the director of the Population and Immigration Authority’s Foreign Workers Administration, addresses the Knesset Committee on Foreign Workers on December 19, 2023. (Danny Shem-Tov/Knesset Spokesperson's Office)
Inbal Mashash, the director of the Population and Immigration Authority’s Foreign Workers Administration, addresses the Knesset Committee on Foreign Workers on December 19, 2023. (Danny Shem-Tov/Knesset Spokesperson's Office)

Over 12,000 new and veteran foreign workers have arrived or returned to Israel in the wake of Hamas’s October 7 assault on southern Israel, including 2,218 in agriculture, half of them from Thailand, a representative of the Interior Ministry told lawmakers on Tuesday.

Testifying before the Knesset Committee on Foreign Workers, Inbal Mashash, the director of the Population and Immigration Authority’s Foreign Workers Administration, announced the arrival of the first group of 100 workers from Sri Lanka out of what officials say will be an eventual total of 10,000, noting that efforts are also being made to attract laborers from countries such as Moldova.

More than 10,000 workers, primarily from Thailand, fled the country following the Hamas onslaught on October 7, when 3,000 terrorists burst through the Gaza border, killed 1,200 people and took approximately 240 hostages. Thirty-nine Thai workers were killed in the massacre, and 32 were kidnapped and taken hostage to Gaza, Reuters reported last month. Twenty-three Thai nationals were released in a deal between Bangkok and the Hamas terror group last month.

Efforts to bring in new workers via private arrangements outside of official bilateral agreements have failed to bear fruit fast enough, Uri Dorman, the secretary general of the Israel Agricultural Federation, told the committee.

“The farmers who can accept workers are only those who have open visas, and they are waiting for the Thai workers to return,” he said, adding that due to damage caused by the war, some farmers have not yet begun to work their land and do not currently need workers.

Reports have said that Israel may need more than 30,000 foreign workers for its struggling farms. This is the result of the flight of foreigners as well as the government’s decision to bar the entry of workers from the West Bank in the wake of the attack, despite Agriculture Ministry support for replacing those who left with Palestinians. The shortage was also significantly exacerbated by the mobilization of hundreds of thousands of Israeli reservists for the war against Hamas.

Coffins of 8 Thai workers killed in the conflict between Israel and Palestinian terror group Hamas after being repatriated from Israel during a ceremony at Suvarnabhumi Airport in Bangkok on October 20, 2023. (James Wilson/Pool/AFP)

The lack of workers, combined with damage to infrastructure during the war, has ruined many farmers’ crops and has raised concerns about the future of Israeli agriculture and food security.

Addressing the committee, Daniel Klusky, secretary general of the Citrus Growers Organization, said that there was a shortfall of 3,500 workers due to the limits placed on Palestinian laborers.

Committee chairman MK Eliyahu Revivo called on the Agriculture Ministry to consider “converting the quotas of Palestinian workers to foreign workers for the benefit of farmers who need seasonal laborers.”

Thousands of additional workers are also expected to be recruited for Israeli agriculture and industry from countries like Malawi and Kenya.

With Malawi’s economy in deep trouble, thousands are ready to take on jobs on farms and orchards left deserted amid Israel’s ongoing war. More than 400 Malawians flew to Israel last month as part of a Lilongwe government labor export program aimed at finding jobs for young people and generating desperately needed foreign exchange.

Local authorities in the African nation say up to 5,000 Malawians could go to Israel over the next few months. This is in addition to an expected 1,500 from Kenya, the BBC reported, quoting an Israeli diplomat as saying that Jerusalem is “looking to East Africa to fill the labor gap.”

Israeli soldiers volunteer to pick oranges with farmers in the moshav of Beit Hillel in northern Israel near the border with Lebanon, on November 10, 2023, amid increasing cross-border tensions between Hezbollah and Israel. (Jalaa Marey/AFP)

In a post on social media platform X last week, Foreign Minister Eli Cohen welcomed Malawi workers to Israel, stating that the government had “acted urgently and reached arrangements with several countries to bring thousands of workers to Israel.”

Cohen last month met with his Ecuadorian counterpart, Maria Sommerfeld, and “discussed promoting a framework agreement to bring 25,000 workers from Ecuador to Israel in the fields of construction and agriculture,” according to a Foreign Ministry statement.

Meanwhile, Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu spoke about the possibility of bringing Indian laborers to Israel with Indian Prime Minister Narendra Modi during a call on Tuesday.

In an effort to prevent exploitation of foreign workers arriving in Israel to ameliorate the labor shortage caused by the war, lawmakers on Tuesday approved a set of regulations intended to cap the payment that private agencies are allowed to charge foreign workers who arrive outside the framework of bilateral agreements.

According to the new regulations given the green light by the Knesset Labor and Welfare Committee, the maximum charge allowed is NIS 2,963, or $810. The regulations will apply to workers arriving between November 5 and February 4.

Responding to the measure, a representative of Kav LaOved (Worker’s Hotline), an Israeli organization defending worker rights, argued that the move would actually harm foreign workers, telling lawmakers that “the reality is that most of the money that is prohibited for collection is paid to parties abroad.”

“They are opening a door to a foreign office abroad that no one here can really supervise,” said the representative, Elad Cahana.

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