After Expelling Palestinian Workers, Israel Turns to the Global South for Labor


Tanupriya Singh | Peoples Dispatch - TRANSCEND Media Service

Palestinians at the Occupation-controlled Karem Abu Salem crossing between Israel and Gaza
(Photo: Screenshot)

Israel has thus far signed agreements with Kenya and Malawi to bring in workers to its agricultural sector, which has otherwise relied on Palestinian and Thai migrant labor.

26 Jan 2024 – As Israel has continued to wage a genocidal war on Gaza for over 100 days, the Occupation is now contending with the impact on its own economy.

After revoking the work permits given to Palestinian workers from the occupied territories, and foreign migrants having left Israel since October 7, the Zionist state has turned to recruit workers from countries in Asia and Africa, where working class people are especially vulnerable to economic crises.

Recruitments have been announced in at least two states in India, where Israel is looking to hire up to 20,000 workers in the coming months for its construction sector. This is amid several concerns regarding the process, including a lack of labor protections related to labor guarantees and medical coverage.

Meanwhile, Israel’s agriculture sector, central to the Zionist settler-colonial myth of “making the desert bloom”, is facing its “biggest crisis since…1948” as it is no longer able to exploit Palestinian workers for some of its most physically-intensive tasks.

Following the launch of the Al Aqsa Flood operation by Palestinian resistance groups on October 7, Israel revoked the work permits of thousands of Palestinian workers from Gaza.

While the Occupation has refused to confirm how many Palestinians were present within the Green Line at the time, thousands of workers were detained and subjected to brutal physical abuse, torture, and humiliation for several weeks. At least two detained workers from Gaza were killed in Israeli detention facilities in the Occupied West Bank.

Palestinian workers are predominantly confined to low-wage and strenuous work under abusive and dangerous conditions in the Israeli Occupation’s construction and agricultural sectors. In the agricultural sector, Palestinians account for nearly a quarter of the workforce, while migrants mainly from Thailand make up 33%. These workers have been confined to labor-intensive and non-mechanized tasks, including planting seeds and picking fruits.

Not only has Israel revoked the work permits given to Palestinians, but an estimated 10,000 Thai migrant workers have also left after 39 workers were killed and 32 were among the hostages taken by Hamas fighters on October 7. Now faced with a labor shortage, Israel has turned to countries in Africa.

Neoliberal crisis at home

In November 2023, Malawi sent 221 young people to work on Israeli farms, with the government stating that it would send an additional 5,000 people. The announcement has come at a time when the country is facing a severe economic crisis, characterized by a high cost of living.

While being a predominantly export economy, Malawi has been facing a critical decline in foreign exchange reserves, which led to shortages of necessary goods including food, medicines, and fuel.

Conditions worsened significantly after the country’s central bank devalued the kwacha by 44% against the US dollar in November 2023— a major step the bank seemingly had to take to access a USD 178 million loan from the International Monetary Fund (IMF). This was after Malawi had already devalued its currency by 25% in May. The price of fuel, which affects the price of goods and services, grew by 45% following the devaluation.

According to the Famine Early Warning Systems Network, by the end of November, the prices of the maize had increased by 30% up to 80% as compared to the year before. It is in this context of economic strife that many young Malawians might seek employment abroad.

The first plane with workers on board took off just weeks after Israel delivered a USD 60 million aid package to Malawi. Human rights groups and opposition politicians in the country have criticized a lack of transparency surrounding the employment agreement.

Meanwhile, soon after, Kenya announced that it would be sending 1,500 farm workers to Israel. The agreement was secured in December, with Nairobi announcing that Kenyan workers part of the agreement would receive a monthly wage of approximately USD 1,500 under three-year renewable contracts.

This was after Kenyan president William Ruto announced that his government would work to send up to 5,000 Kenyans abroad for work every week as a way to address the unemployment crisis in the country.

Economic conditions for poor and working class people have spiraled in Kenya in recent years, with the crisis exacerbated by currency depreciation and policies including the removal of subsidies on fuel and maize—a decision Ruto took just days into his presidential term—and retrogressive tax laws.

Despite mass protests which saw deadly violence by state forces, the government has implemented a neoliberal, pro-corporate, and pro-privatization agenda informed by the diktats of the IMF and the World Bank.

“Ruto has instead opted to sign agreements with foreign countries and presented this as a solution to a perennial joblessness. However, this is a very neoliberal way of managing the economy, instead of utilizing Kenya’s internal productive forces to respond to the issues affecting the people, including food security, developing agriculture, and access to land,” Booker Ngesa Omole, the Vice-Chairperson and National Organizing Secretary of the Communist Party of Kenya, told Peoples Dispatch.

“The government’s foreign policy is attached to the contracts it is signing with foreign governments. It is reducing our country to a country of interests. Ruto is promoting what he calls ‘economic diplomacy’, what is happening is that there are no principles on the basis of which Kenya is relating to other countries, rather it has become a question of whether relations are serving an agenda”.

For instance, Omole cited an announcement President Ruto had made on X (formerly Twitter) in 2022, rescinding Kenya’s recognition of Western Sahara, which remains under Morocco’s colonial occupation. While the decision was later dismissed by Kenya’s foreign ministry, Ruto’s announcement had followed an assurance by Morocco to provide subsidized fertilizer.

The Ruto administration has held close ties with Israel, with the Occupation’s Minister of Intelligence, who attended the presidential inauguration, calling Kenya a country of “strategic importance” for Israel. Even prior to the current administration, both countries have cooperated in key areas including defense and security, including training and technical support to its forces.

During a July 2023 visit to Nairobi, Israel’s now former foreign minister, Eli Cohen, thanked the Ruto government “for their efforts to promote Israel’s position on the continent” adding that “Kenya’s membership on the board of the [UN’s] International Atomic Energy Agency allows it to influence the international supervision of Iranian violations.” Both Israel and its imperialist backer, the US, have adopted an aggressive stance against Tehran.

Following the Palestinian resistance offensive on October 7, Ruto expressed Kenya’s “solidarity with the State of Israel and unequivocally condemned terrorism.” According to Omole, “this showed that the government is alienated from the Kenyan people,” as “the “people in Kenya were in support of the resistance of the Palestinian people.” Protests held in solidarity with Palestine in previous months have seen a heavy-handed response form the police, including arrests and the use of tear gas.

Omole added that the October 7 resistance offensive exposed and disrupted the process of the normalization of the Zionist occupation of Palestine as successive countries were moving to establish ties with Israel. “There was going to be peace in West Asia… but this was peace based on the brutalization of the Palestinian people,” he said.

Moreover, he added that “the Zionist army had boasted before that it was invincible. Now it is clear that Israeli forces can be defeated, just like the apartheid forces in South Africa and the brutal British colonial forces.”

Sending Kenyan workers to be employed by an apartheid state known for the abuse and exploitation of Palestinian and immigrant workers has raised alarm among the people.

Exploitation abroad 

“Now that the Zionist occupation cannot exploit the labor of Palestinians, they are searching for another place on the globe from where they can exploit labor,” Omole said, adding that Kenyan workers would face phases of exploitation. “Workers are not being employed on the land directly. There is an Israeli agency that will contract a Kenyan agency which will in turn recruit workers.”

“When there is talk of a salary, it is not all going to directly go to the worker. Part of it will go to the government’s labor office in Nairobi, part will go to the recruiting agency, and a part will go to the Israeli agency,” he said, adding that the workers’ status as immigrants might mean that they would be denied the same benefits an Israeli worker might be able to access via social services.

Moreover, abuse and exploitation of migrant workers in Israel has been documented consistently over the years.

Thai workers employed in moshavim, which are branded as a “unique type of cooperative farmers’ village,” have been subject to severe exploitation, including extremely long working hours, salaries below the minimum wage, and unsafe and unsanitary living and working conditions. Between 2008 and 2013, 122 Thai migrants died in Israel.

Meanwhile, Palestinian workers have been subject to discriminatory labor laws, lower pay compared to Israeli workers, and zero benefits or social protections. According to the Palestinian ministry of Labor to the International Labour Organization, 53 Palestinian workers died in Israel in 2022, out of which 44 people worked in the construction sector. According to the Palestinian General Federation of Trade Unions, six workers were killed by Israeli forces while traveling to workplaces in Israel or its illegal settlements.

Now that Israel has punitively revoked the permits given to Palestinians and foreign migrant workers have left, it has sought agreements with countries in Africa to fill the labor gap. Israel is planning to recruit farm workers from Uganda, and has already initiated the process in Tanzania, the Israeli ambassador to Kenya told the BBC. Israel has also turned to Asia, where it signed an agreement in November with the government of Sri Lanka, a country devastated by a debt crisis, for the “immediate” hiring of 10,000 farm workers.

Omole stated, “The Kenyan government cannot guarantee the safety of workers even within the country, it cannot guarantee the safety of Kenyan people outside our borders. Israel boasts of its friendship with the Ruto government, this means that it will not be held accountable for the mistreatment of Kenyans.”

“This agreement has been packaged as an initiative taken deliberately by Israel and Kenya to address unemployment in Kenya, it is much like the Israeli propaganda of turning a desert into productive farms… Ultimately, this policy is only beneficial to the Israeli Occupation and not the Kenyan majority.”

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