By Noa Shauer
Tu B’Shvat is the holiday celebration of the fruits of the land in Israel and it takes a great deal of manual labor to grow them. Most agricultural workers are migrants who have been brought to Israel to do the hard work. They earn less than minimum wage, live in deplorable conditions, and are indentured to their employer like slaves. On the other hand the farmers’ condition is not good. They are collapsing under the burden of paying high taxes. The state does not take responsibility for what is happening, neglects the failing agricultural sector, and abandons farmers and workers to fight each other.
The agricultural sector is complex. Farmers struggle with considerable difficulties including the controversy over the allotment of land for agricultural use, payment of high taxes, and the serious lack of workers which is not filled by importation of cheap labor. In addition, Israel is the only member state of the Organization for Economic Co-operation and Development (OECD) where employers pay tax on foreign worker salaries. Kav LaOved estimates that the income collected by the government annually from employer tax stands at 160 million New Israeli Shekel (ILS) which is in addition to the requirement for farmers to purchase an annual license to employ foreign workers, which brings in additional millions each year. The farmers, whose incomes depend on the labor of migrant workers, are often unable to survive financial burden and many farms have shut down for lack of workers.
In an attempt to ease the farmers’ burden, the state offers various governmental subsidies which do not provide for the real needs of the farmers. For example, through a system of subsidies called “Automation Saves Working Hands” the government promises to pay up to 40% of the cost of farm machinery. But the farmers say that agricultural automation is not able to replace the farm workers, giving the example that there is no machine that can pick peppers.
In addition to these difficulties it is important to note that while the Ministry of Agriculture does provide some support to the farmers, the state provides less support for the migrant agricultural workers who are invited by the state to come to Israel. According to the data collected by Kav LaOved, the salary earned by migrant agricultural workers is significantly below minimum wage. This results in an average payment of 140 ILS for eight hours work, with an average of 20 ILS for each hour of overtime andf work on the Sabbath.
In an analysis made by Kav LaOved, violation of the minimum wage law for 22,000 foreign agricultural workers means a loss of 22,952 ILS per worker per year, or 504,955,440 ILS for all the foreign workers in one year. In other words, half a billion ILS a year are stolen from migrant agricultural workers through non-enforcement of the minimum wage law.
Despite the fact that Kav LaOved constantly alerts the Ministry of Finance about non payment of minimum wage to agricultural workers, pointing to specific farms that repeatedly break the law, the alerts receive no response. There is no effective enforcement to deal with farmers who violate the law. The flow of migrant workers coming to the Kav LaOved offices report repeated endless violations.
One might conclude that the lack of response by the Ministry of Finance and the lack of enforcement of the minimum wage law provides an indirect government subsidy or an informal way for the government to support the agricultural sector. The subsidies that are not provided to the farmers through the Knesset committees are provided on the backs of the workers through non-enforcement. The workers find themselves paying the agricultural sector what the government is not willing to pay, while the government lets the employers and workers fight among themselves about employment conditions, benefits, and rights.
In the complex system of the agricultural sector it makes no sense that workers, who do not know their rights and only want to be treated equally, are asked to carry the failures of the system on their backs.
As Tu B’Shvat approaches it is important to remember that the fruits and vegetables that we eat are picked and gathered by one of the weakest groups of workers in the marketplace. Only effective law enforcement, carried out in the language that the workers understand, will make it possible to strengthen the workers and thereby strengthen the agricultural sector as a whole.
The author is Coordinator of Agricultural Workers at Kav LaOved.
The original article that was published in The Marker (in Hebrew) on January 20, 2014, and can be found at:
Translation: Sharon Kerpel