In Israel, Thai Migrant Workers Are Caught in Other People’s War

Since Hamas’s October 7 attacks killed dozens of Thais in Israel, 8,000 of 30,000 Thai migrant workers have fled the country. Their exposure to a war in which they have no part dramatizes their insecure status as heavily exploited laborers.

A picture taken on January 29, 2015 in the Israeli town of Metula along the Lebanon-Israel border shows a Thai migrant worker at an apple plantation, a day after the Israeli military shelled border areas following a Hezbollah attack. (Menahem Kahana / AFP via Getty Images)

By far the largest group of non-Israelis affected by the Hamas-led attack this October 7 were migrant workers from Thailand. As of December 5, forty-five Thai citizens have been pronounced dead. Following the release of twenty-three hostages over the past two weeks, fifteen remain missing, an estimated eight of them still abducted in the Gaza Strip.

Meanwhile, thousands of other Thais who lived and worked in the region have been displaced by the violence. Despite activists’ efforts to provide safe spaces for rest and recuperation, most have had to choose between immediately going to work with replacement employers — or even returning to their previous workplaces — and flying home to Thailand.

After thirty years laboring in obscurity, Thai migrants in Israel — the vast majority of whom come from Isaan, Thailand’s impoverished and underprivileged northeast — are suddenly in the global limelight. Thailand’s new government, headed by a party many Isaanites voted for, has struck a populist note by calling on them to come home and offering special benefits. Preferring to take the government at its word rather than continuing to endure physical danger and naked discrimination in Israel, over eight thousand have already gone home.

But in Isaan, labor migration is often the only way to escape debt and provide a future for one’s family. While the worsening security situation in Israel may enhance the popularity of alternative destinations, like Taiwan and South Korea, some migrants have already returned, and many more would do so, if only there were a lasting cease-fire to let them.

Exposure to violent death in a colonial conflict in which they play no part is only the most dramatic manifestation of the hyperexploitation and neglect that Thais in Israel have suffered over the last thirty years. But it is no coincidence that many of the rural areas where migrants are concentrated — including the Lebanese border region as well as the area neighboring Gaza — are also hotspots of violence.

Two days after the war broke out, Yoni Dimri of the Moshavim Movement, which represents most Israeli farmers, explicated the connection between the exploitation of agricultural migrants and the Zionist imperative of territorial control. The area surrounding the Gaza Strip, known in Israel as the “Gaza Envelope” (‘otef ‘Aza), he said, “is a region where the main source of livelihood is agriculture. If there are no foreign workers, there won’t be any agriculture. And if there is no agriculture, there won’t be a region.”

Israel’s Colonial Agriculture

To understand how migrant farmworkers became so central to the colonial project of maintaining control over land taken from Palestinians, it is necessary to take a quick look at the historical role of agriculture in the Zionist project. Under the British Mandate, the Zionist movement invested considerable resources in purchasing agricultural land.

Most of this land was turned over to collective and cooperative communities of settlers, known as kibbutzim and moshavim respectively, who swore by socialist principles and vowed to refrain from employing Palestinian laborers, as a previous generation of private colonial entrepreneurs had done. However, given communal property arrangements and the refusal of most Palestinian peasants to sell, only about 7 percent of the country’s arable land could be acquired in this way.

The expulsion of the primarily agrarian Palestinian population during the war of 1948 resolved the issue. Following the Nakba, the new Israeli state expropriated vast tracts and distributed them to existing and new Jewish settlements. Frontier areas like the one facing the Gaza Strip, which had seen the expulsion of many villagers and heavy fighting in the war, were deemed especially important.

At the same time, immense ecological transformations were undertaken, like the construction of the National Water Carrier, which piped water from the Jordan River to the coast. These made agriculture more profitable, but often at enormous environmental cost. The movement’s explicit socialist principles were quietly abandoned, and Palestinians who had remained in Israel, as well as Jewish immigrants from Middle Eastern countries, were sent into the fields to work for paltry wages.

Following the war of 1967, when Israel conquered vast new territories from its neighbors, the agrarian strategy was extended to the newly occupied territories. Farming settlements were set up along the new frontiers — in the Golan Heights (conquered from Syria), the Jordan Valley (in the West Bank, previously occupied by Jordan), and the Sinai Peninsula and Gaza Strip (both taken from Egypt). Their locations were chosen in order to separate the Palestinians of the newly occupied territories from these neighboring countries. At the same time, these settlements took advantage of even cheaper labor — that of the Palestinian residents of the newly occupied territories.

Thailand to the Rescue

But agricultural settlement was soon to lose much of its importance to Israeli colonial strategy. The Begin government that came to power in 1977, driven by religious messianism as well as the strategic innovations of its agriculture minister, the archmilitarist Ariel Sharon, replaced the emphasis on the agrarian takeover of vast border areas with a strategy of thrusting “fingers” of suburban settlement (served by access roads) into the heavily populated parts of the occupied territories, breaking the territorial contiguity necessary to a viable Palestinian state.

Following an economic crisis in the early 1980s, a unity government enacted the “Emergency Stabilization Plan” of 1985. Following the turn to doctrinaire neoliberalism, protectionist policies for agriculture were dropped. State-guaranteed cooperative arrangements collapsed, forcing neighbors into competition with one another and with foreign producers. And as if this were not challenge enough, the state responded to the Palestinian uprising known as the First Intifada, which began in 1987, by increasingly locking Palestinian workers out of the Israeli economy.

Around the same time, Israeli tour guide and entrepreneur Uzi Vered entered a long-standing network of military and aid connections between Thailand and Israel in order to recruit Thais for “training” in Israel. Vered took advantage of the Thai military government’s interest in its Cold War ally’s experience with “frontier settlement” to bring hundreds of Thai workers to Israel beginning in the late 1980s. When the Israeli government came round to regularizing the importation of farm labor in the early 1990s, an institutional framework of middlemen in both countries, eager to shave some rent off the migrants’ meager incomes, was already in place.

Extreme Marginality

By the mid-1990s, over twenty thousand Thai workers were in Israel, and the number has risen steadily, reaching approximately thirty thousand by September 2023. The influx of labor allowed Israeli farmers to adjust to the shift from growing a variety of vegetables and fruits for a protected national market to catering to a global (primarily European) market by specializing in particular products. Increased competition has brought lower prices, and hence a need to ramp up production, using up scarce water resources and further damaging local ecosystems, including biodiversity hotspots.

Moreover, Israeli producers’ new competitors, in countries like Spain and Italy, have access to very cheap migrant labor of their own. Hence, there is intense pressure on farmers to keep their own labor costs down. Although migrants are protected on paper by the same laws that apply to Israeli workers, employers apply their outsize political influence to keep enforcement of these laws minimal.

Thus, workdays often extend to eleven or twelve hours, and wages hover at about 70 percent of the legally stipulated minimum. Housing is often of substandard quality, crowded and unsanitary, and occupational safety standards — particularly with regard to pesticide use — are ignored. The small minority of women workers is exposed to sexual harassment and assault by both coworkers and employers.

Severance pay, due at the end of workers’ five-year contracts, is often withheld. At the same time, legal provisions that make employers responsible if workers leave the farm sector or outstay their allotted five years are enforced strictly. Workers are thus rendered juridically dependent on the goodwill of their employers and subjected to their surveillance.

This legal helplessness is compounded by other forms of isolation. As cropland in the country’s center is swallowed up by suburbs, agriculture has receded more and more into frontier zones. Among these are the area near the Lebanese border in the north — now under threat from Hezbollah’s rockets — and the much quieter Arabah region on the Jordanian border in the far south, as well as the Jordan Valley, the Golan Heights, and of course the “Gaza Envelope.”

Together with their linguistic isolation — few workers know English or Hebrew, or have the opportunity to learn — and the casual racism that blinds many Israelis to their presence, Thai migrants’ relegation to these relatively remote zones also compounds their marginality. Their isolation is extreme even in comparison to such other “foreigners” as asylum-seekers from East Africa and eldercare workers from the Philippines, who live in Israel’s cities and enjoy a measure of access to the political sphere, mostly through their ties to NGOs.

Isaanites are not known for their political quiescence at home — the northeast has long been the center of oppositional politics in the country, including the Maoist insurgency of the 1970s and the Red Shirt protest movement of recent years. Indeed, in their very active online communities, discrimination against migrants and the Thai authorities’ complicity have become an object of cynical humor.

When, in the replies to a video series on “Life in Israel” that I cohosted, one migrant complained that “90 percent of workers are not paid according to the law,” another answered: “The Thai government has said in a statement that in fact less than 5 percent are paid below the minimum wage. Unfortunately, we happen to be employed by this 5 percent of employers!” adding “555555,” slang for laughter.

Despite this acute sensitivity to injustice, the many levels of marginalization they face in Israel have heretofore made it practically impossible for workers to unionize and fight for their rights in an organized way. Though there have been wildcat strikes and other protests, sometimes with the support of Israeli workers’ rights groups, so far these have been ruthlessly repressed. But the times may be changing.

Unclear Future

Combining a colonial commitment to agricultural settlement as border control with a neoliberal distaste for subsidizing agriculture, the Israeli state has rendered Thai migrants vulnerable to both illegal hyperexploitation and the dangers of death, injury, and abduction.

Migrants were killed in previous rounds of violence in the Gaza area, and rights groups have warned time and again against the danger posed by their lack of access to bomb shelters. Since October 7, two more workers have been killed by rockets launched from Gaza and two were injured by Hezbollah fire from Lebanon. Most worryingly, employers desperate to save their crops and livestock have pressured migrants evacuated from the “Envelope” into returning to work there.

Nevertheless, the current war undoubtedly represents a watershed in the relationship between Thai migrants and the Israeli state. The violence to which they have been subjected has triggered an unprecedented outpouring of sympathy from Israelis and the creation of “Aid for Farm Workers,” a grassroots group working in solidarity with the community (of which I am a member).

It remains to be seen how many Thais will be willing to return to work in Israel when the war is over. So far, local officials have been heavy-handed and stingy in their approach, threatening to deprive workers who “abandon” their posts of the back pay they are legally owed, and aggressively wooing poorer countries, such as Sri Lanka, as potential suppliers of labor. Such schemes have every possibility of backfiring, but so long as the state is unwilling to invest seriously in support for agriculture, a punitive approach to workers’ rights appears the only way of keeping Israeli agriculture competitive.

Hundreds of years after its North American counterpart, in the last thirty years the Israeli settler colonial project has come to rely heavily on the brutal exploitation of people who are neither settlers nor indigenous. But so far discussions of decolonization in the Palestinian/Israeli case have remained at best “binational,” raising the question of how Arabs and Jews can live together in equality, but as yet making no room for others.

But the suffering of Thai migrants in this war raises a question that will only become more urgent as the climate catastrophe and other facets of global capitalism’s worsening crisis increasingly push the residents of the Global South northward. Given Palestine/Israel’s geographic position between Africa and Europe and its economic dependence on cheap noncitizen labor, we can reasonably expect the arrival of larger numbers of migrants and refugees in the country. Is there room in the decolonial imagination for people who are neither Palestinian nor Israeli? Can we envision a way ahead in which the country’s borders are open and they, too, are welcomed as equal participants in forging its future?