Thai agricultural workers working in a cabbage field on a farm in southern Israel, on July 16, 2014.

(Jerusalem) – Thai agricultural workers in Israel face serious labor rights abuses because Israeli authorities are failing to enforce their own laws, Human Rights Watch said in a report released today. Israeli authorities should take immediate steps to improve its enforcement mechanisms and investigate whether unsatisfactory living and working conditions have contributed to a troubling pattern of deaths among migrant workers from Thailand.

The 48-page report ,“A Raw Deal: Abuses of Thai Workers in Israel’s Agricultural Sector,” documents low pay, excessive working hours, hazardous working conditions, and poor housing for some of Israel’s Thai agricultural workers – and employer retribution if they try to protest by going on strike. The problems 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 unionization, and outline standards for workers’ accommodation.

“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. “Israeli authorities need to be much more active in enforcing the law on working hours and conditions, and in clamping down on employers who abuse workers’ rights.”

Approximately 25,000 Thai migrant workers supply the vast majority of the labor for Israel’s agriculture. In 2011, Israel signed a bilateral agreement with Thailand, known as the TIC (the Thailand-Israel Cooperation on the Placement of Workers) that cut significantly the recruitment fees that Thai workers must pay to obtain work permits, reducing their vulnerability to forced labor. However, Human Rights Watch found other abusive conditions remained, and switching employers was still difficult and costly.

Human Rights Watch interviewed a total of 173 Thai workers in 10 farming communities known as moshavim in northern, central, and southern Israel. All said that they were paid less than the legal minimum wage, forced to work far more hours than the legal limit, exposed to unsafe working conditions, and had difficulties if they tried to change employers. In all but one of the 10 communities where Human Rights Watch investigated living conditions, Thai workers were housed in makeshift and inadequate accommodations.

Workers at several farms complained of headaches, respiratory problems, and other maladies, including burning sensations in their eyes that they attributed to spraying pesticides without adequate protection. Some workers told Human Rights Watch that their relatives in Thailand sent them medicines because they could not access medical care in Israel.

The majority of workers that Human Rights Watch visited were housed in non-residential structures, such as warehouses and sheds, with makeshift kitchen and laundry facilities. At one farm, Thai workers showed Human Rights Watch shelters they had constructed from cardboard inside farm sheds.

Government figures show a disturbing pattern of deaths of Thai workers. From 2008 to 2013, according to government figures reported by the Israeli daily Haaretz, 122 Thai workers died in Israel. They included 43 whose deaths authorities attributed to “sudden nocturnal death syndrome,” a heart condition that is said to affect young and otherwise healthy Asian men, and 22 who died from causes that are unknown because the authorities did not conduct autopsies.

One of the 22, Praiwan Seesukha, 37, died in his sleep in May 2013. The day after he died, Human Rights Watch spoke with his co-workers in a farming community near Israel’s Mediterranean coast. They said the workers slept in cramped space in a farm shed that the employer had converted into workers’ quarters. The workers said they worked up to 17 hours a day, every day, with no day off. A worker at another moshav said he felt “like dead meat” after a working day that typically began at 4:30 a.m. and ended at 7 p.m.

“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.

Workers told Human Rights Watch that when they tried to exercise their right to change employers, the recruitment agents who can facilitate such transfers had charged them up to a month’s salary. Others, at a moshav in central Israel, said they asked an agent to help them change employers because of their low wages, poor housing, and excessive working hours – from 5 a.m. until 10 or 11 p.m. in the summer months. They said the agent refused and told them they would have to find a new employer on their own.

The workers then went on strike, they said, and as a result, obtained a pay increase and reduced working hours, although their pay remained below the statutory minimum. But they said that two of the strike leaders lost their jobs in what they perceived to be retribution.

Human Rights Watch found that the abuses the workers described result primarily from weak enforcement of Israel’s labor laws, which on paper afford migrant workers extensive protection. Various factors, however, undermine the effectiveness of the legal framework. These include a division of regulatory responsibilities, an ineffective inspection regime, apparently insufficiently resourced enforcement units, and a failure to impose meaningful sanctions on employers and manpower agents who break the law.

The Interior Ministry’s Population, Immigration and Border Authority (PIBA) and the Economy Ministry (formerly the Ministry of Industry, Trade and Labor) share responsibility for regulating the agricultural sector. Human Rights Watch asked both agencies for data on inspections, but neither provided detailed information.

PIBA said it did not keep statistics on its inspections and did not disclose how many inspectors it employs. The Economy Ministry also refused to specify the number of site visits it carries out, stating that the number did not provide an accurate representation of the number of inspections the agency conducts. In the last five years the Israeli authorities fined farmers and manpower agents in only 15 cases, totaling 1,317,170 NIS (approximately $320,000), issued 145 warnings, and suspended one license agent for labor infractions, according to information from the Ministries of Interior Economy.

Israel should improve its oversight of employer compliance with existing labor laws and regulations, and enforce protection of foreign workers’ labor rights to the same extent as it does for Israeli citizens, Human Rights Watch said. The authorities should promptly investigate alleged abuses of workers’ rights and hold abusive employers to account.

“Thai workers in Israel face serious problems but these can be addressed because Israel already has laws and a regulatory system in place to protect migrant workers,” Whitson said. “It is fundamentally a question of enforcing these laws and regulations.”