Israel rejects ‘distorted’ BBC report on abysmal conditions of Thai farm workers

Israel rejects ‘distorted’ BBC report on abysmal conditions of Thai farm workers

UK news broadcaster’s investigation said many agricultural laborers live in squalid quarters, are exposed to dangers of poor sanitation and pesticides

Stuart Winer is a breaking news editor at The Times of Israel.

File: A Thai worker picks decorative flower leafs in Kibbutz Sde Nitzan's flower farm, near Israel's border with the Gaza Strip, on July 20, 2014 (Hadas Parush/Flash90)
File: A Thai worker picks decorative flower leafs in Kibbutz Sde Nitzan's flower farm, near Israel's border with the Gaza Strip, on July 20, 2014 (Hadas Parush/Flash90)

Israel on Thursday rejected a report by the BBC that Thai agricultural workers in the country are kept in conditions that are a threat to their health, saying in a multi-ministerial communique that the report did not accurately reflect the reality.

A joint statement issued by the ministries of health, foreign affairs, agriculture, welfare, and the Population and Immigration Authority, declared that the report was “distorted.”

“We strongly reject the unprecedented allegations reported by the BBC concerning the terms of employment of Thai workers in Israel,” the statement said. “These claims portray a distorted picture of reality.”

The BBC report, published last Friday, claimed many Thai agricultural workers in Israel are living in squalid conditions, are underpaid, and are exposed to work hazards from pesticides without proper protection.

Since 2012 there have been 172 deaths among Thai workers, the BBC report said, and noted that autopsies are rare with death certificates simply noting the cause as “undetermined.”

Screen capture from video of a BBC report about the conditions of Thai agricultural workers in Israel, November 2018. (BBC)

“The Ministry of Health received in recent years reports of sudden death of Thai workers during sleep,” the Israeli ministries’ statement said. “The issue was investigated by the Public Health Services in cooperation with the National Institute of Forensic Medicine. The investigation, which included the dispatch of a senior medical team to Thailand, confirmed the hypothesis of the sudden deaths as a result of Brugada syndrome.”

The genetic condition manifests as a disruption to the heart’s rhythm that can cause sudden cardiac arrest.

“The results of the Ministry of Health investigation show that a significant number of the cases of death during sleep were caused by a genetic syndrome common to Thailand in general and a certain number of tribes living in the north-eastern part of the country in particular. This syndrome has also been noted among other Thai workers, not necessarily in the agricultural sector, in other countries around the world.”

The statement asserted authorities employ “professional enforcement units…to supervise the employment of foreign workers, workplace safety, health and compliance with the state’s labor laws. The state obligates workers and employers to carry out training, to enforce hygiene and safety regulations and to employ necessary protection measures.”

In addition to the option of contacting the Thai embassy in Israel, there is a hotline in the Thai language available for workers to report any problems, the statement said. If substantiated, an investigation is opened against the employer.

“In this context, 992 complaints were handled in 2018. It is important to point out that employees are not bound to their employers and are able to change employers at any given moment.”

The ministries also noted that the employment agreement which enables thousands of Thai workers to come to Israel has been described by the International Organization for Migration as “a successful creation that has regulated and eased the employee recruitment process, reduced possibilities of collecting illegal payments from employment seekers and protected workers’ rights.”

A team from the inter-governmental IOM, which is based in Geneva, was recently in Israel and was “positively impressed” at the treatment of workers, the statement asserted.

The BBC reporting team visited 50 farms around the country where they spoke with hundreds of workers.

Footage showed workers contending with cramped living conditions, moldy walls, mice, rotten infrastructure, and bad sanitation. The Thai citizens also told the team of their concerns over spraying chemicals because they are not given adequate protection, only a rain coat and a surgeon’s mask.

Israel is one of the highest users of pesticides in the Western world, although the volume of chemicals sprayed on crops each year has been steadily dropping over the past decade.

Israeli farmers whose land the BBC team visited did not agree to be interviewed, the report said. Farmers are responsible for providing food, shelter, and work permits for the workers.

Israel and Thailand signed an agricultural labor deal in 2012 and today there are some 25,000 workers in the country. Their rights are protected under Israeli law.

In a statement to the BBC, the Labor ministry said it has carried out hundreds of inspections of work conditions and issued hundreds of fines.

“400 inspections are carried out every year and interpreters are used when needed,” the statement said. “More than 1,500 investigations have been opened since 2013 — into pay and working hours. We’ve issued 3,000 warnings, and 200 fines, totaling more than $3.8 million.”

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