Missile Attacks? They Come with the Job

BY DAN-CHYI CHUA
Oct 04, 2010
*Special to asia!

Thais in Israel's secluded agricultural communities have the regular migrant worker woes and more.

The New Promised Land

The New Promised Land

They have arrived here in the hopes of a better life. Some have crossed the Security Wall from the Palestinian West Bank, while for some others, the journey took them from the other extreme of the Asian continent. Have the Palestinian, Thai and Chinese workers found what they are seeking? What are the unique issues they have to deal with working in this land of conflict?

 

A rice cooker was the last thing I expected to see in these parts of Israel. This is not a country that feeds itself on rice.

As I walked closer, the music gave the game away. The catchy, upbeat melodies of Thai pop were sounds I would expect in Had Yai's back alleys or Bangkok's air-conditioned malls, but not along Israel's border with Gaza.

Here in the kibbutz of Nahal Oz were eight Thai workers. One was swinging to the music in a hammock, the kind strung on Thai beaches. A few others were sat on an eclectic circle of chairs that had seen better days. It was seven in the evening. A low leafy tree was offering much needed relief from the summer heat.

I walked round to the long makeshift wooden containers that were their dormitories. There was a rusty refrigerator, a couple of broken-looking washing machines and lines of washing strung around. A colony of scruffy cats milled around.

Next to these quarters, the kibbutz kept calves enclosed in individual wooden cages, wallowing in dung. Behind them, large sheds held the milking cows.

Every day, these Thai men would milk and tend to these animals. It was a short walk, much closer than to the bomb shelters on the other side of the dormitories. In Israeli communities located close to Gaza, bomb shelters are ubiquitous. Every bus stop is one, and every home has one. The whole idea is for anyone to be able to reach one in 17 seconds – the time it takes for a missile that has landed to blow up.

If the Thai workers were in their dormitories, they might get to the shelter in 25 seconds, if they ran fast enough. If they were in the sheds on the other side of the quarters, they would take much longer.

In any case, no one would make it in 17 seconds.

Back in March, a Thai worker was killed in a missile attack. Was he aware of what to do, if a missile struck? Do the Thai workers, generally?

I put the question to Kessie Conen, a Thai who works with Kav La'Oved, an Israeli migrant workers rights organisation. Speaking from her conversations with them, she said most are not aware of what to do. There are drills and instructions, but they are conducted in Hebrew.

Of the different nationalities of migrant workers in Israel, the Thais are possibly the most isolated.

This is one way the language barrier constitutes a problem for the estimated 29,000 Thais here, employed mostly in agriculture. Of the different nationalities of migrant workers in Israel, the Thais are possibly the most isolated. Their work places them in locales far away from the urban centres like Tel Aviv and Jerusalem.

Such seclusion makes it hard for the workers to seek help or recourse when they are exploited. To get the Thai embassy near Tel Aviv, they have to organise their own transport which sets them back almost 800 shekels (US$200).

 

194 The view from one of the agricultural areas which employs Thai workers. It is within striking distance of rockets from Gaza, which lies just along the horizon in this photo.

 

To reach these workers, Kav La’Oved conduct monthly field visits to where they are employed. Case worker Tom Mehager found them working with dangerous chemicals and pesticides, often without protective gear. Most are housed in the 37-degree-Celsius heat in caravans with no air-conditioning, like the ones I saw in Nahal Oz. They are often filthy with limited facilities, like a sink in a makeshift outdoor kitchen and a shower to be shared between nine workers.

Truth be told though, to anyone who has visited rural, off-the-beaten track Thailand, Tom could as well be describing the living conditions there. It is perhaps no wonder then that when the Thai workers complain to Kav La’Oved, it is less about how they live than about not being given rest days, and unpaid or underpaid wages.

The Thai worker is filling a gap in the agriculture sector left by the Palestinians...

Israeli law mandates that a minimum wage of 20.70 shekels (US$5), but as Tom told me, thousands of Thai workers do not receive even that. The workers are also entitled to 15,000 shekels (US$3,750), when they finish four to five years of work here. However, employers sometimes withhold this amount from them, giving them just 2,000 shekels instead. They tell the workers it is a gift, or netana, one of the few Hebrew words the Thai workers will learn.

In such situations, Kav La’Oved helps mediate between the workers and employers. If the dispute goes to court, it provides the workers with affordable legal representation. The organisation is also educating them in Thai-language booklets about their rights as workers here.

The Thai worker is filling a gap in the agriculture sector left by the Palestinians, prevented from working in Israel owing to security concerns. It will take him about 1 ½ years to clear the money he borrowed in order to come work here.

In debt and an alien in a foreign land, with his legal permission to stay in Israel tied to being employed, to avoid problems, a Thai worker will sometimes simply accept what is doled out to him, fair or not.

This is what makes migrant workers such prime candidates for exploitation, not just here in Israel, but the world over. Because the money they make here in a few years far exceeds what they will get back home, many will keep their heads down, till they are finally home free.

dan-chyi chua

Dan-Chyi Chua was a broadcast journalist, before forsaking Goggle Box Glitz for the Open Road. A three-year foray led her through the Middle East, China, SE Asia, Latin America and Cuba, and she's now grounded herself as a writer for theasiamag.com, content with spending her days in Jerusalem.

Contact Dan-Chyi