In an emergency ruling about a decade ago, the kibbutz I just left decided to hire foreign workers to be able to meet fruit’s natural (and therefore non-negotiable) harvesting deadlines. In bringing “Thailandim” to the desert oasis, the kibbutz joined a national trend: tens of thousands of Thais work in Israel, according to the BBC.
I spoke to the kibbutz member in charge of workers in the kibbutz’s date fields and learned a lot about the business of bringing in foreign laborers. At first glance, the phenomenon seems anathema to many ideological strains present in Israeli society: socialism, self-reliance, Zionism/nationalism. According to this member, however, it was unavoidable: the kibbutz’s expanding business and aging membership/workforce simply demanded a more reliable source of labor than volunteers or even willing Israeli workers could provide. (One year, the kibbutz hired a cadre of Israelis right out of the military, but the logistical problems other than age mirrored those of kibbutz members: family constraints, occasional medical leave, reserve duty in the IDF.) So kibbutzim hire young Thai men, usually married, who come to Israel on five-year contracts to earn hugely more than they could at home. (Estimates range from double to 20 times). The work force of this particular kibbutz also includes six Eritrean refugees, recruited from the side of the road in Eilat or by word of mouth. These hired workers labor long hours in searing heat often well over 100° Fahrenheit during the summer growing season for juicy Mejdool dates.
The Thai workers live on the kibbutz but don’t participate in the community at all. (The Eritreans live in Eilat and the kibbutz pays for their daily commute.) Living on a kibbutz is such a communal experience, for the members, for volunteers, even for interns at the academic institute on kibbutz property, like me. When the kibbutz voted to hire foreign workers, it actually decided to incorporate them into the community. But the Thailandim come here to earn money for their family back home, not to make new lives. Although they live in a housing block near the volunteers’ quarters, the first group declined the option to eat meals in the kibbutz dining hall – although some Thailandim at a nearby kibbutz do. Instead, they continue to eat traditional foods, which they prepare with ingredients bought in part from a traveling vendor serving the 4,000 to 5,000 Thailandim in the northern Arava.
In Thailand, I’m told, it is an honor to be picked to leave the country – even though it usually means going into debt at first thanks to high, sometimes predatory middleman fees. But that system is changing: since the Israeli and Thai governments signed an agreement in May 2012, Thais can be employed directly by Israeli employers and don’t have to go through the private “manpower agencies” that can take advantage of them by charging exorbitant fees for finding work. I spoke with Sharon, from a different kibbutz, about this new ruling and he expressed skepticism that the system change will improve the prospects of Thailandim or those who hire them. He said (though I wasn’t able to verify) that there will still be middlemen, several large, ostensibly not-for-profit organizations in place of the 50+ private companies now in business. Whether there will be any middlemen or not, the system now will be randomized and anonymized, so current workers cannot arrange for a friend or relative to follow in their footsteps and employers cannot communicate with future employees. Both members I spoke with emphasized that when the regulation goes into effect, small kibbutz industries will suffer from not being able to easily and reliably find workers with specific skill sets, as they do now through personal reference by current workers and logistics facilitated by the middleman. Sharon said that he uses the system to check up on workers before they come and make sure they are not being taken advantage of to get here.
I’m sure that not all employers put in the effort to take care of their future employees or find appropriate niche workers for certain tasks, and I write only from the perspective to which I was directly exposed. But I hope that the advantage of the new system – fairness for workers – will counterbalance the difficulties it will pose for smaller employers and the increased anonymity faced by workers. It’s interesting to observe the situation of foreign workers in a country that prides itself on self-reliance, has mixed feelings about the African refugees who have made it there, and has poor relations full of fear and hostility with most of its immediate neighbors. From what I can see, the physical laborers are welcomed as part of the Israeli economy but not integrated into Israeli society. Other foreign workers – such as the many Filipina caregivers – and other outsiders have different stories, for another post.