Activists and academics worry that the United Nations no longer overseeing the flow of migrant workers might open more avenues for exploitation in the country
By Nanchanok Wongsamuth
BANGKOK, July 21 (Thomson Reuters Foundation) - Thai agricultural workers in Israel will be at greater risk of labour abuses under a new partnership between the governments, advocates said, voicing concerns that the United Nations migration agency (IOM) would no longer oversee the process.
Thailand's Department of Employment (DOE) this week signed a deal with the Israeli government - replacing a 2010 agreement that was facilitated and managed by the IOM - to keep sending 5,000 Thai migrants a year to work in Israel's farming industry.
Yet activists and academics said they feared workers' rights would suffer as the two governments took over from the IOM in handling the selection and training of applicants, and dealing with complaints from Thai agricultural workers in Israel. Israel has faced scrutiny in recent years after campaigner and media reports that Thai migrant labourers are underpaid, forced to work long hours and exposed to dangerous conditions.
"The big problem is that the Thai Department of Employment has a ... shoddy record of protecting rights of Thai farmworkers in Israel," Phil Robertson, deputy Asia director at Human Rights Watch, an advocacy group, told the Thomson Reuters Foundation.
DOE director-general Suchat Pornchaiwiseskul said the new agreement would follow the same procedures as implemented by the IOM, and that workers would continue to pay a recruitment fee of about 70,000 baht ($2,200) to secure a job in Israel.
Israel's ambassador to Thailand, Meir Shlomo, said the recruitment process would be "legal and transparent".
The IOM declined to comment. The U.N. agency's departure from the process was confirmed by the Thai labour ministry.
LOW PAY, UNSAFE CONDITIONS
More than 25,000 Thai migrant workers supply the majority of the labour for Israel's agriculture industry. They are entitled to a salary worth about $1,545 a month, whereas the average monthly wage in Thailand is in the region of $220.
Kav La'Oved, a workers' rights charity in Israel, said it was often approached by Thai migrants who were underpaid, kept in unsanitary accommodation and working in unsafe conditions.
"We will follow closely ... the new agreement as we are concerned about the return of unfair practices such as unreasonable brokerage fees," said coordinator Miriam Anati.
Activists said private recruitment firms may take advantage of the new deal by sourcing workers for the Thai government and charging them high fees that can trap people in debt bondage.
Yahel Kurlander, a researcher at Tel Aviv University with expertise in human trafficking, said she was worried about the IOM's departure from the process and that the new agreement did not properly address the vulnerability of Thai migrant workers.
"No new solutions are suggested for workers that are exposed to exploitation and basic rights violations with regard to wages, access to healthcare, living conditions and a safe working environment," she said.
A Thai farm labourer in Israel said he was fired on Sunday and attacked by his employer for not working quickly enough.
The 28-year-old said he had sought assistance from the Thai embassy in Tel Aviv to file a complaint with the local police.
"I want to go back home (to Thailand) because I'm afraid of him (the employer)," he said by phone, declining to give his name for fear of reprisals. "I'm afraid he will hurt me."
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(Reporting by Nanchanok Wongsamuth @nanchanokw; Editing by Kieran Guilbert. Please credit the Thomson Reuters Foundation, the charitable arm of Thomson Reuters, that covers the lives of people around the world who struggle to live freely or fairly. Visit http://news.trust.org)
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