Farmers in Israel are carrying out a three-day strike this week, over quotas in the number of foreign workers allowed into the country. Israeli growers and their supporters held simultaneous demonstrations around the country to draw attention to the strike action, which involved putting a stop to all deliveries of fruits or vegetables.
Outside the southern city of Netivot, protesters blocked highway traffic and dumped piles of red peppers, cucumbers and fresh flowers in the roadway. Then, they offered produce to drivers stuck in traffic.
This protest was relatively tame. The demonstrators cooperated with police by periodically getting out of the road to allow traffic to flow again. But they wanted to send a message.
ï¿½We feel that we've been neglected, abandoned,ï¿½ said Zvi Wenner, a Canadian-born Israeli who has worked in agriculture for more than 30 years.
Wenner said the western Negev Desert is one of the country's most important farming areas and the farmers there are suffering from an acute shortage of temporary foreign workers.
ï¿½There are no local people to work, it's only us who live down there,ï¿½ he said. ï¿½There's just nobody else. It's either we get foreign workers or we cut the farms down to almost nothing and then we'll have to import fruits and vegetables.ï¿½
Protest organizers say the Israeli government is failing to live up to a commitment to bring in 26,000 foreign workers for this year. They say the industry is 4,000 workers short.
Israeli officials say the farmers have their numbers wrong. But another protester, who works at a nursery and didn't want to give his name, says the argument over numbers is beside the point.
He said Israeli farms can't survive without more outside labor.
ï¿½These guys, most of them are Thai people, they are happy to come here. They get great salaries compared to what they get in Thailand,ï¿½ he said. ï¿½So, it's a win-win situation. I don't see anyone who loses from this except some vague declaration that it will help that it will help to cut down unemployment in Israel. But it's ridiculous.ï¿½
Some labor advocates, however, say what is really ridiculous is the large pool untapped labor inside Israel itself.
Assaf Adiv is a labor organizer with the group, Workers Advice Center, and he is based in Jerusalem. ï¿½We have a list in our data base of 1,000 Arab women who are ready to go tomorrow to the job,ï¿½ Adiv said.
Putting unemployed Arab Israelis to work in the farming industry, Adiv said is a real win-win solution. But he said Isareli farmers are hesitant Arab Israelis won't work 16 hours a day, like foreign workers do, and they also insist on being paid minimum wage ï¿½ which is about $5.50 an hour.
Adiv said Thai workers are paid an average of about $3.50 an hour and that conditions for them in Israel are appalling. ï¿½They can't change employers, they can't have personal relations. If they know that a woman and a man are in any kind of relations, they kicked them out of the country,ï¿½ Adiv said.
ï¿½If a woman gets pregnant, she is kicked out of the country. They are not human beings, they are machines that are brought here. They pay so much money in their countries in order to come here, they cannot speak on anything.ï¿½
So far, the strike doesn't seem to be having much of an impact on food prices in Israel but it has raised questions about the long-term future of Israel's farming sector.
Up until 10 years ago, when the second intifada broke out, large numbers of Palestinians worked on farms in Israel. Most are denied access into Israel now. But that could change. According to Israeli radio, defense minister Ehud Barak is looking into the possibility of allowing 1,200 Palestinians permission to work in Israel's agricultural sector.
The farmers' strike was supposed to end on Thrusday this week. But there are reports it could go on longer if the government doesn't meet the farm lobby's demands.