Thai agricultural workers in Israel face serious labor rights abuses, including low pay, excessive hours and hazardous conditions, which may have contributed to a disturbing pattern of deaths among them, a report said on Wednesday.
Abusive conditions persist despite improvements in 2011 to the recruitment process for Thai workers, and Israeli laws that set a minimum wage, limit working hours, allow lawful strikes and define standards for housing, Human Rights Watch (HRW) said.
The report said various factors, including an ineffective inspection regime, poorly equipped enforcement units, and a failure to impose meaningful sanctions on employers who break the law, undermined this legal framework.
Thailand itself has come under fire for labor violations and human trafficking, and the U.S. State Department named it in June as one of the world’s worst sources of forced labor.
Around 25,000 Thai migrant workers supply the majority of the labor for Israel’s agriculture sector, HRW said.
"The success of Israel’s agricultural industry depends to a large extent on the labor of Thai migrant workers, but Israel is doing far too little to uphold their rights and protect them from exploitation," said Sarah Leah Whitson, Middle East and North Africa director at HRW.
Workers told HRW, whose staff interviewed 173 Thai workers in 10 farming communities across Israel, that they were treated like slaves, working up to 17 hours a day, without any time off, and one man said he "felt like dead meat".
Many suffered headaches, respiratory problems and burning sensations in their eyes, which they attributed to spraying pesticides without adequate protection.
Some workers told HRW that relatives in Thailand sent them medicines because they could not access medical care in Israel.
The report said the majority of workers interviewed were housed in warehouses and sheds, with makeshift kitchen and laundry facilities, while workers on one farm were living in shelters made from cardboard.
It also said there had been a troubling pattern of worker deaths that should have alerted the authorities to potential abuses.
Between 2008 and 2013, 122 Thai workers died in Israel, according to government figures reported by Israeli newspaper Haaretz, 65 dying from heart conditions and 22 from unidentified causes as the authorities did not order a post-mortem, HRW said.
"While it is not clear if there is any connection between the high number of deaths among Thai workers and their work conditions in the agricultural sector, the facts certainly warrant investigation," Whitson said.
The report called, among other things, for streamlined labor inspection processes, meaningful sanctions on employers and agents, and an investigation into deaths in the farm sector.
An Israeli Ministry of Foreign Affairs spokesman said the country had a special responsibility regarding foreign workers and their countries within the framework of bilateral accords and was committed to the enforcement of labor laws.
"We are on top of it [the situation], whenever something wrong happens, the Israeli authorities act immediately and in a very deliberate and clear way," he said.
The authorities had imposed fines in far more cases than HRW reported and the total value of the fines was greater, he said.