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Employers send Thai workers into south Israel fields despite IDF directive: NGO

Thai worker looks at the damage caused by a missile fired from gaza Strip at a farm near the Israel and Gaza border, Thursday, Aug. 9, 2018.
AP Photo/Tsafrir Abayov

Many Thai workers employed on Israeli farms near the Gaza border were forced to continue working by their bosses Thursday despite a barrage of rocket fire and the Israeli military saying agricultural activity should be halted.

In the early hours of Thursday a 30-year-old Thai woman was seriously injured by shrapnel from a rocket fired from the Hamas-run enclave, the most serious civilian injury since renewed Gaza projectile fire began some two months ago.

The incident highlighted the precarious situation for thousands of Thai farmhands in southern Israel, who are ill-equipped and psychologically unprepared for finding themselves on ranches that can turn into war zones within seconds.

The Israel Defense Forces (IDF) said early Thursday that agricultural work near the Gaza border is “not authorized” after more than 150 projectiles were launched at Israel, eliciting scores of Israeli air strikes.

Despite the military’s statement, some employers have sent their Thai workforce into the fields as usual, an NGO that assists foreign workers in Israel told i24NEWS.

After publishing a notice on Facebook about the military’s guidance, Assia Ladizhinskaya said she received calls from bewildered and frightened Thai workers in several locations claiming the instructions were not being followed by their Israeli bosses.

AP Photo/Tsafrir Abayov

“We have had several phone calls from workers saying the farmers are forcing them to go to the fields even though it is not permitted,” Ladizhinskaya said in an interview.

“They don’t know how to respond because they may be fired, but are [also] afraid for their lives.”

Responding to Kav La’Oved’s post, many more Thai workers in Israel made similar claims.

An i24NEWS correspondent at the scene of the rocket attack that injured the 30-year-old Thai woman in the community of Talmei Eliyahu said the accommodation was covered only by a layer of aluminium that was partly burned away by fire.

Several workers could be seen heading out to the fields just hours after the attack.

Ladizhinskaya said she contacted the IDF and was told that the workers would need to make contact with the individual commanders of the Gaza border regions to ascertain if was safe to work, a suggestion she called “insane” given the workers’ unfamiliarity with the Israeli military and often limited Hebrew.

Thais who reported being at work Thursday were in locations including Nahal Oz, Zikim, Moshav Netivot and Beit HaGadi, some of which are mere meters away from one of the world’s most volatile borders.

The IDF considers its statement that agricultural work is “not authorized” as only a recommendation and does not attempt to enforce it.

The Thai embassy did not return a request for comment.

Thrust into war

Almost 25,000 foreign citizens are employed in Israel as agricultural workers, the bulk of them Thais who came under the aegis of agreements signed between the governments of Thailand and Israel.

Thousands find themselves thrust directly into Israel’s frequent battles with Gaza militants.

In July 2014 Narakorn Kittiyangkul was killed when a mortar shell crashed into the greenhouse in which he was working. In March 2010 a rocket slammed into a kibbutz near Nativ Haasara, killing Thai worker Manee Singueanphon, 30.

Several more Thais have also been injured over the last decade. Even before Israel bulldozed its Jewish settlements from Gaza in 2005 Thai workers were killed and injured in attacks by Palestinian militants and shoot-outs between gunmen and Israeli troops.

In times of increased rocket fire from Gaza, residents in southern Israel are told to stay no more than 15 seconds from a shelter or protected space. For many Thai workers, this option is not available.

Many live in temporary housing such as caravans or shipping containers, and while working in the fields are usually far from any structure that would likely shield them from the impact of a rocket or shrapnel.

AP Photo/Ariel Schalit

A Thai agricultural worker in Israel told i24NEWS that “not all the Thai workers have access to shelter. It depend [on the] farmer.”

This was echoed by Ladizhinskaya, who said the workers’ protection largely depends on the attitude of their employer.

Many are diligently protective of their employees, said Ladizhinskaya, but some prioritize production even during conflict. “They know if they lose this guy they will get another one soon,” she said.

Some of the more seasoned workers, who have lived through several years of sporadic conflict between Israel and Gaza militants, are also more prepared and relaxed about the rocket fire, she said.

For many of the workers assigned to southern Israel, being caught up in one of the Middle East’s many wars is piled on top of exhausting working hours, improvised accommodation and low pay.

A 2015 Human Rights Watch study found almost all workers were paid well below Israel’s legal minimum wage -- although still an increase from typical salaries in Thailand -- and that many were made to work seven days a week and only take a handful of days off every year.

Between 2008 and the report’s publication, at least 122 Thai workers had died on farms in Israel, according to government statistics. Many deaths were not explained because police did not open investigations into their deaths or conduct autopsies.

i24NEWS Defense Correspondent Daniel Tsemach contributed to this report.

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