When Thong arrived at the Tel Aviv airport he had no idea what he would experience during his time as a farm worker in Israel. Far away from his home village, he worked for five years in a Moshav, a corporate farming community in Israel, near the Gaza Strip and encountered the common fears and drudgery of an agricultural laborer. International organizations, such as Human Rights Watch, have thoroughly shed light on the abuse of Thai workers in Israel. However, Thong’s story shows that we cannot evaluate international labor migration with only black and white categories.
It was in cold winter season when Thong arrived in Tel Aviv. Coming from muggy Thailand, he remembers the cold Israeli breeze upon leaving the airplane: „It took me a while to decide to go to Israel. I had a good job as a vendor and I could support my parents financially,“ Thong said. But the family, like many in rural Thailand, had to pay back debt and it wasn´t easy for them to get ahead. One day, a man from the village asked his mother if she knew someone who would be interested in working in Israel. In Thailand, working abroad is generally seen as something good, as many people only see the money that is sent back home. But few people know and talk about the downside of migration.
„My Mother asked me again and again. For over one year she did not stop asking me if I want to go to Israel. I was worried to go there because I heard that there was war in Israel.“
According to Human Rights Watch, Thai workers usually need 2 years to pay back migration commission fees, with contracts typically running up to 5 years.
In Thailand, the family is of very high priority and Thong finally obeyed his mother’s wish and agreed on going to Israel. But it wasn´t that easy to get there. He had to pay a 340,000 THB (6,800€) commission fee to an agent, which is a fortune in Thailand.
When Thong boarded the aircraft he did not know what was waiting for him in this country he barely knew before: „I felt better when I saw that I wasn´t the only one going there.“ Over one hundred workers arrived the same day as him, all dreaming to make their fortune by working in Israel. Since the mid-1990s, Israel has become an increasingly popular destination for Thais to work in the agricultural sector. In 2015, Israel ranked as the fourth most important destination for overseas migration from Thailand, with more than 25,000 Thai farm workers supplying the vast majority of the work force in Israel´s agricultural sector (accounting for 95 percent).
Thong found himself in the middle of nowhere. Even today, Thong doesn’t remember the name of the Moshav where he worked for five years. When he arrived there were two other Thais working with him, but after three month he was the only Thai left. The others left because they couldn´t handle the situation. Indeed, the conditions weren’t good: „During the day time I had to work on the fields and in the evening I had to load the trucks with all kinds of vegetables we were producing. The shifting weather was the worst. Sometimes it was very hot and sometimes extremely cold. But regardless the temperature they let me sleep in a chicken house„.
Labor rights abuses are common, as the Israeli government isn’t able to enforce its own laws. According to the Human Rights Watch report „A Raw Deal – Abuse of Thai Workers in Israel’s Agricultural Sector,“ the main problems are: excessive working hours, less payment than agreed upon in the working contract, hazardous working conditions, and poor housing. Many Thai workers put in up to 17 working hours per day and almost all are paid less than the legal minimum wage. The average payment among farmworkers was 16.45 NIS/hour (4€/hour) (HRW, 2015). However, Thong doesn’t complain about the salary, as the minimum wage in Thailand is about 4€ for a whole day.
In Israel, Thai farm workers are doing not only hard work under the sun, but they are also doing quite dangerous jobs. In 2014, more than 4,000 Thais worked close to the Gaza Strip. Thong was one of them and he could see the border from the fields. „One night I was sleeping and suddenly I woke up in the air.“ A rocket had hit the ground right next to his chicken house and he was lucky that nothing serious happened to him. During 2008 and 2013, the time when Thong stayed in Israel, the newspaper Haaretz reported that 122 Thai workers died.
Despite the hardship and fears, Thong didn´t bury his head in the sand. He had come all the way to Israel to support his family so he couldn´t give up. Working in Israel was hard, but there were also very nice moments and things he really liked. Thong starts smiling and takes his phone out to show me pictures he took in Israel: „We traveled around and went to the beach and for the first time. I went to mountains with snow„. In Israel everything is big, he continues. From the tomatoes to the strawberries everything is huge and he starts laughing: „I really like the water system there. They use drip irrigation and have a very sophisticated way to manage their water“.
The Israel case is interesting, in particular, with regard to so-called social remittances. As mostly Thais with a peasant background do work in the Israeli agricultural system, complementary learning effects can be high. Reportedly there are villages in Northeast Thailand (Isaan) which profoundly changed their agricultural production after many men of the village returned from Israel with new experiences and ideas. Another example, from the empirical work of Alexander Reif, found that Thai farm workers from Japan brought ideas and experiences related sprinkler systems to their farms in Lamphun Province (North Thailand) after coming back.
The Israel case is interesting, in particular, with regard to so-called social remittances. As mostly Thais with a peasant background do work in the Israeli agricultural system, complementary learning effects can be high. Reportedly there are villages in Northeast Thailand (Isaan) which profoundly changed their agricultural production after many men of the village returned from Israel with new experiences and ideas. Another example, from the empirical work of Alexander Reif (Working Paper in German), found that also internal migrants within Thailand brought ideas and experiences such as sprinkler systems to their farms in Lamphun Province (North Thailand).
What are social remittances?
Too often it is overseen that migrants send more than just money back home. Migrants also transfer so-called social remittances which are new ideas, symbolic values, social practices, and new identities between the different places of migration which makes migrants to agents of change.
If you want to learn more look at this blog:
„It’s Not Just About the Economy, Stupid“ – Social Remittances Revisited
However, the example of Israel also shows that social remittances are not always a sure-fire success, as Thong explains: „Sure, I got so see the sophisticated agricultural system in Israel but I was only involved in the management of some parts of the irrigation system. So even if I wanted and if I would have the money I only know part of the whole system so I cannot apply it here in Thailand.“
For the last two years, Thong has been back in Thailand and he is working as a rice and sugarcane farmer again. We sit in front of his parents‘ house in a remote village in Northeast Thailand and he concludes that despite all the drudgery it wasn´t a bad decision to go to Israel. His family could pay back some debts and he could buy them a pick-up truck, which is of very high symbolic value in the village. But nevertheless, he says, „I will never return to Israel, never!“ Thong starts laughing after stressing these words. His laugh sounds uneasy and sad at the same time. In Thailand, people seldom criticize even difficult circumstances. Optimism and hope seems to be one of the biggest drivers of international labor migration, despite all the challenges and bad stories people in Thailand tell one another. Meanwhile, Thong plans to go abroad again this time he wants to try to his luck in Germany.