What is the truth about Thai workers' deaths in Israel?

What is the truth about Thai workers' deaths in Israel?
Thai workers ride an ATV during a sandstorm near Kibbutz Lachish near the southern city of Kiryat Ga.

A recent Human Rights Watch (HRW) report has sparked a controversy as to whether Thai workers are being exploited in Israel and are dying from the mysterious "sudden nocturnal death syndrome".

Now@Noon, a programme on Now 26, a digital TV channel under the Nation Multimedia Group, explored the issue and found conflicting information from the HRW, and the governments of Thailand and Israel.

Between 2008 and 2013, a total of 122 Thai workers died in Israel, according to figures provided by Israeli Health Minister Yael German to Israeli daily Ha'aretz.

Out of the 122 dead, 43 died from "sudden nocturnal death syndrome", a mysterious death during the night while sleeping, according to an HRW report.

Such deaths, according to Phil Robertson, deputy director of the Asian division of HRW, have never been investigated by Thai or Israeli governments. In an interview, Robertson said 173 Thai workers interviewed by non-governmental organisation Kav LaOved had complained of long hours, being paid below the minimum wage, and not receiving proper equipment to protect themselves from the use of pesticides.

This finding was combined with interviews from the Israeli Farm Federation, Israeli parliament and NGOs. Robertson admitted the laws and regulations were generally good in Israel, but he said there was a lack of proper enforcement. The Thai workers apparently did not even receive pay slips in Thai. Robertson demanded from Israeli ambassador Simon Roded, who refused to be on the same programme as Robertson, answers as to why the Israeli government had not been more active on these issues.

In response, the ambassador appeared on the channel on another day and said the HRW report was not based on proven methods of research and hence no response was needed. He said 15-minute interviews with a small group of Thais out of the total 23,000 working in Israel were not enough.

The envoy admitted though that out of 6,000 employers in Israel who hired Thai workers, there were cases of farmers not abiding by labour laws.

However, Roded said Israel had a hotline where 560 complaints filed by Thai workers had resulted in collection of up to Bt25 million (S$1.05 million) from employers who had not followed the law.

A report in the Israeli Ha'aretz newspaper on September 18, 2014 detailed how the Israeli Health Ministry could not expand its Thai language hotline due to a "lack of appropriate budget".

Roded said each Thai worker was provided with Thai booklets informing them of the labour laws and that stories by HRW of Thais not receiving proper translated documents were "a farce".

Accusing the HRW of having a "hidden agenda", the ambassador pointed out that deaths caused by "sudden nocturnal death syndrome" were commonly found in the northeastern part of Thailand, home to most of the Thai workers who went to Israel.

To find out more from the Thai government about the Thai deaths, Sumet Mahosot, director-general of the Thai Employment Department, was interviewed for more clarification. He said there were "no deaths" except for a Thai worker killed in clashes between Israelis and Palestinians. Sumet said there was no truth to the HRW report and that Thailand had an office for migration in Israel and is in constant communication with the Israeli government.

More surprising was the fact that Sumet's comments contradicted those by Prasittiporn Wetprasit, deputy director-general of the Department of Consular Affairs. Prasittiporn admitted there had been deaths from the syndrome that could stem from the living and working environments of workers. However, he said the number of deaths reported was small -23 deaths in 2012, 16 in 2013, and 13 in 2014.

He said the Thai embassy in Israel did not take the situation lightly and was proposing a trip by Thai doctors and psychologists to visit the workers.

The only common ground found by all three sides was the improvement made by the Thailand-Israel Cooperation on the Placement of Workers. It had significantly lowered the cost for Thais wanting to work in Israel from Bt300,000 to around Bt70,000. Coordinating the agreement was the International Organisation for Migration, an inter-governmental NGO.

IOM had not been able to clarify how Thai workers were being treated in Israel. The fact that even the number of Thai workers in Israel was reported differently by each side (25,000 by HRW, 23,000 by the Israeli embassy in Thailand, and 27,000 by the Thai government) raises the question on who is telling the truth.

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