1,500 Kenyan Farmers Will Be Sent To Israel As Kenya Labour Ministry Strikes Labour Transfer Deal With Israel

The announcement comes nearly two weeks after Malawi sent 221 young people to work on Israeli farms, triggering a backlash against the government there. The casual workers will be deployed on three-year renewable contracts, “with a guaranteed net [monthly] income” of $1,500 (£1,195), said Kenya Labour Ministry .

The Kenya government is set to send about 1500 farm workers to Israel on a three-year contract amid the ongoing war with Hamas. The Ministry of Labour through Principal Secretary Shadrack Mwadime announced on Wednesday that the two countries had inked a deal for mutual benefits where the Kenyan labour would be exported mainly as casual workers to work in Israel’s agricultural fields. The deal, according to Mwadime, has a guaranteed net income of Ksh.230,000 ($1,500) per month

“Kenyan to export labour for Israel’s agriculture fields as casual workers. These emerged following bilateral discussion between PS @Mwadimeshadrack and MD of Guri Avocados from Israel, Mr Rami Cohen today,” read the statement posted on X, formerly Twitter.

PS Mwadime had met with an Israel representative, the MD of Guri Avocados Rami Cohen and  Kenya Chamber of Commerce President Dr Eric Ruto. The ministry said that the casual labourers would be earning a net income of 1,500 USD (about Ksh.230,000) per month for the entire period. He further noted that the initiative would be coordinated through the Kenya National Employment Authority.

“These opportunities number about 1,500 with a guaranteed net income of 1,500 USD per month, on 3 years renewable contracts. The program will be implemented by a number of local licensed agencies,” added the ministry.

The announcement comes against the backdrop of the war in the country which has left about 16,000 people dead since October 7. Reports also indicate that more than 10,000 migrant farm workers, mostly Thailand nationals have left Israel with about 32 Thai nationals killed. Israel has also barred Palestinian workers, who made up nearly 20% of the agricultural labour force before the war.

“I have agreed with Bore (Labour CS, Florence) that we will sign bilateral labour agreements so that we export labour from Kenya,” the President promised on November 19.

“In Kenya, we have suffered the brunt of struggle for independence the same way the Palestinians are doing, we have also suffered the challenge of terrorism the same way Hamas visited terrorism on Israel,” President William Ruto recently said in a panel during the Future Investment Initiative conference in Riyadh, Saudi Arabia.

The answer was in response to a question about the ripple economic effects of the major events and conflicts of the last three years. In addition to shortages of major inputs such as fertiliser, and hikes in fuel prices, the last three years have threatened to upend the delicate socioeconomic balance that existed before. 

Since the Hamas attacks in Israel and Israel’s ongoing retaliation, the threat of a prolonged and broader conflict in the Middle East has threatened to worsen the economic and security crisis in Kenya. Some of these risks are direct, such as a disruption to oil supplies, or even just more hikes in oil prices at a time when pump prices in Kenya are already at unprecedented highs. Another is that the emerging security risks could result in travel advisories, negatively impacting the tourism industry, which is one of Kenya’s most important economic sectors. In one past instance where that happened, analysts estimated that the Kenyan economy lost $130 million per week. 

Although Kenya does more business with Hamas’ foremost state ally Iran than with Israel, Kenya’s foreign policy stance has always leaned to the West, and by default pro-Israel. There’s a lot of history behind this pragmatic decision, going back to when Kenya and Mandatory Palestine were both part of the British Empire.

Kenya Labour PS Shadrack Mwadime on Wednesday December 6,2023 with an Agriculture Businessman Based In Israel Mr Rami Cohen in Kenya. Image: Courtesy

Israel has turned to Africa to fill a severe labour gap on its farms, after a mass exit of foreign workers. More than 10,000 migrant farm workers – mostly Thailand nationals – have left Israel since the start of the war with Hamas in early October. Israel has also barred Palestinian workers, who made up nearly 20% of the agricultural labour force prior to the war.

Israel’s ambassador in Kenya, Michael Lotem, told the BBC that Israel was planning to recruit farm workers from Uganda as well, while recruitment in Tanzania had already started.

“We are looking to East Africa to fill the labour gap as we have had student internships programmes in place for many years with these countries and it has been a good experience,” Mr Lotem said.

He added that the labour shortage had been caused by the fact that an estimated 360,000 Israeli reservists have been called up for military service since the war started. He did not cite work restrictions on Palestinians or the departure of foreign nationals as the reasons for the shortage. Israel’s agriculture ministry told CNN last week that the country needed 30-40,000 farm workers.

The late Clemence Felix Mtenga was a 22-year-old agriculture student in Israel. The announcement has sparked mixed reactions in Kenya, with some concerned about the workers’ safety. Other than that, reports indicate that at least 32 Thai farm workers were killed and several others taken hostage when Hamas attacked Israel on 7 October. Tanzanian student Clemence Felix Mtenga – who was in Israel as an agriculture intern – was also killed in the attack, while another Tanzanian student, Joshua Loitu Mollel, is still missing.

Critics have also questioned the conditions the workers will face in Israel.

In 2018, a BBC investigation found that many migrant farm workers in Israel were subject to unsafe working practices and squalid, unsanitary living conditions. Some were overworked, others underpaid, and there were dozens of unexplained deaths. Rights groups like Human Rights Watch have also previously raised the alarm over Israel’s treatment of foreign farm labourers.

At the time Israel denied the accusations and has since said that foreign workers enjoyed the same employment rights as Israeli citizens. Mr Lotem said extra measures have since been put in place to ensure foreign workers are treated fairly and that any foreign worker can now file a complaint which will be quickly tracked. Some Kenyans have supported the deal, saying it provides badly needed jobs at a time when Kenya is battling an unemployment crisis and the rising cost of living. Kenya has an unemployment rate of 5.5%, according to the World Bank.

Malawi’s government has also announced that it will send 5,000 more young people to work on Israeli farms, rejecting calls to drop the plan.

“People are going out of desperation,” said William Kambwandira, the executive director at the Centre for Social Accountability and Transparency, a workers’ rights watchdog based in the capital Lilongwe. “Given that the war is happening, we are concerned about the welfare of these young men and women,” he added.

However, Mr Lotem told the BBC that the farm workers would not be placed in areas close to the conflict, and they would have the same protection as Israelis. The promise of a secure job and higher salary has pushed safety worries aside for many of the Malawian workers going to Israel.

Andrew Chunga, 27, was part of the first group of 221 Malawians who took up jobs in Israel last month. He is currently living in a two-bedroom house with two other Malawians on a farm in Gefen in central Israel, and has spent the first week removing weeds.

“This is all about money. I am here for greener pastures. When I go home, I will be a millionaire,” Mr Chunga said laughing.

Malawian Jamison Kupatamoyo says he will return home once a year for a holiday. Jamison Kupatamoyo, 27, is another Malawian who has been working in Israel since last month. He said he was thrilled to get the job as it will help him gain training in agriculture training and send a good wage back to his family.

“I’ll be in Israel for five years but will go back to Malawi every year for a holiday,” Mr Kupatamoyo told the BBC. “There is unemployment in Malawi, and the salaries are low [there], compared to here in Israel,” he added. Asked if he was worried for his personal safety, Mr Kupatamoyo replied: “I was already aware about the conflict in Israel, but there is a lot of fake news on social media. It is only small parts of Israel that are affected – not the whole country.”

Malawian Jamison Kupatamoyo in Israel. Image: BBC

Mr Kupatamoyo said his employment agency had talked to him about the conflict. “They explained everything about the war and assured us that where we are going is a safe place and we have witnessed that so far.” he said

The need for 30-40,000 farm workers in Israel, as stated by the country’s agriculture ministry, has led to the recruitment of foreign labour. Kenya’s labour ministry has announced the deployment of 1,500 farm workers to Israel, following in the footsteps of Malawi, which sent 221 young workers to Israeli farms recently. These workers will be engaged in three-year renewable contracts, ensuring a guaranteed net income of $1,500 (£1,195), according to the labour ministry’s statement.

Israel has sought labour from Africa to address a significant shortage caused by the departure of over 10,000 migrant farm workers, primarily Thai nationals, since the beginning of the conflict with Hamas in early October. Palestinian workers, constituting almost 20% of the agricultural labour force before the conflict, have also been barred from entering Israel.

The need for 30-40,000 farm workers in Israel, as stated by the country’s agriculture ministry, has led to the recruitment of foreign labour. However, the move has sparked mixed reactions in Kenya, with concerns raised about the safety and working conditions of the deployed workers.

The recent attack by Hamas on Israel on October 7 resulted in the death of at least 32 Thai farm workers, raising apprehensions about the security of foreign labour in the region. Critics have questioned the conditions these workers might face, recalling past reports of unsafe working practices and inadequate living conditions for migrant farm workers in Israel.

A 2018 investigation exposed instances of overwork, underpayment, and unexplained deaths among foreign farm workers. Rights groups, including Human Rights Watch, have previously expressed concerns about the treatment of foreign labourers in Israel. However, the Israeli government has consistently maintained that foreign workers have the same employment rights as Israeli citizens.

While some Kenyans have welcomed the job opportunities provided by the agreement, others remain wary of potential risks and working conditions. With Kenya grappling with an unemployment crisis and a rising cost of living, the deal has been viewed as a source of much-needed employment. The country currently faces an unemployment rate of 5.5%, according to the World Bank.


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