Israel seeks 1,000 Nepali workers to fill its farming job slots

Pawan Pandey

Israel has asked for 1,000 Nepali workers to be absorbed in its farm sector. The West Asian country has been facing a severe shortage of farm hands which has hampered production.

Nepali government officials and experts say the floodgates may open for local youths in the near future. Other countries too could seek Nepali workers, they said.

Israel formally informed the Nepal government on Monday that it desired to hire Nepali workers, at least 1,000 in the first batch, to be employed on its farms, Thaneshwar Bhusal, under-secretary at the Ministry of Labour, Employment and Social Security, told the Post.

“But the government is yet to officially respond to the request.”

Israeli ambassador Hanan Goder told the Post that they had begun talks with Nepal to take in 1,000 workers. “The period has not been settled. It will be for three to five years,” said Goder, adding that Israel would soon start discussions on the modalities.

For Nepali farm workers, this is just the beginning, labour experts say. Farm labour shortages have been hitting many developed nations resulting in reduced production.

According to a report of the House of Commons Environment, Food and Rural Affairs Committee of the United Kingdom, farm labour shortages have badly affected the food and farming industry—threatening food security, the welfare of animals and the mental health of those working in the sector.

The Financial Times reported that tens of millions of pounds’ worth of fruit and vegetables went to waste in the first half of 2022 because of labour shortages on British farms.

The National Farmers’ Union estimated that up to £60 million worth of produce was thrown away for lack of fruit and vegetable pickers.

The UK government has introduced a seasonal agricultural workers’ visa scheme, which has been extended until the end of 2024, to plug the gaps in the workforce, enabling 38,000 visas to be issued to farm workers.

The UK government has been advised to build on its welcome expansion of the Seasonal Workers Pilot scheme to the ornamentals sector and increase the number of visas available by 10,000 this year; make the scheme permanent; and commit to announcing visa numbers in the future on a rolling five-year basis.

As one of the most aged societies in the world with a shrinking labour force, Japan has also been struggling to meet the demand for workers, particularly in the farm sector.

The food and agriculture sector of the United States is facing a looming shortage of workers, according to reports.

"Various studies had shown that the demand for workers, especially in the essentials sectors, would go up after the pandemic," said Jeevan Baniya, assistant director at the Centre for Study of Labour and Mobility, Social Science Baha, a non-profit organisation involved in research in the social sciences in Nepal.

"Recent data shows that Nepalis are going to new destinations in significant numbers," said Baniya.

“The new opportunities in the labour market should be explored regularly,” said Baniya. “The government has a policy to diversify the labour market, and it has been exploring new opportunities which can be considered a good move. But still, the government lacks adequate preparations.”

The bilateral labour agreement signed between Nepal and Israel in September 2020 has paved the way to send Nepalis to work in different sectors in Israel.

After signing an implementation protocol in January last year, the selection and recruitment process of Nepali nationals for caregiver jobs in Israel formally began.

An examination was held and 1,132 individuals were selected to work in Israel.

According to Bhusal, around 800 workers have already left for the country. “The rest will depart within this month.”

Israel offers lucrative salaries to workers compared to most other labour destinations.

Israel is a major exporter of fresh produce and a world leader in agricultural technologies despite the fact that its geography is not naturally conducive to farming.

In Israel, more than half of the land area is desert, and the climate and lack of water resources do not favour farming.

Arjun Ghimire, deputy chief of mission and spokesperson for the Nepal Embassy in Israel, told the Post that the minimum monthly salary for Nepali workers in Israel is $1,600, or just over Rs200,000 as per the current exchange rate.

Currently, there are 2,800 to 3,000 Nepalis working in Israel, according to Ghimire.

"When manpower agencies were allowed to send workers to Israel, the number of Nepalis had peaked at 18,000 to 20,000," he said.

Departures fell after Israel stopped taking Nepalis in 2009 citing widespread irregularities in the hiring process conducted by overseas employment agencies in Nepal.

"As with the caregiver jobs, Israel said workers would be hired strictly for the farming sector through a government-to-government arrangement," Bhusal added.

Though this is the first time the Middle Eastern country has asked for agricultural labourers from Nepal, more than 3,000 Nepalis have gone to Israel as agriculture trainees so far.

Israel has been training Nepalis in its farm sector for nearly a decade. Records show that 3,161 Nepalis went there as agricultural trainees between 2013 and 2019.

Jhalendra Bhattarai, information officer at the Small Farmer Development Microfinance Financial Institution which is authorised to send Nepali youths to Israel to learn agriculture technology, said they attend classes for a day and work on the farm for five days a week.

"Rural Nepali youths, particularly from low-income families and who have completed grade 12, were sent for an 11-month training programme in Israel. They used to be paid on an hourly basis," said Bhattarai.

"The programme has been halted for the past two years because of the Covid-19 pandemic."

Israel has resumed the programme, and this year around 200 agriculture students who have completed their bachelor’s degree will be sent for training in the next two to three weeks, according to sources privy to the matter.

An official at the Israeli Embassy told the Post that among the shortlisted students, 96 would be from the Agriculture and Forestry University in Rampur, Chitwan and 100 from the Tribhuvan University.

Nepalis started going to Israel to work as caregivers formally after the two countries signed an agreement in August 2015. However, Nepali women had already been working in Israel as domestic helps before the pact.

The salaries are good, but Israeli employers have been criticised for making the employees bear the expenses out of their own pockets.

Workers going for caregiving jobs have to pay for their air ticket, medical examination and insurance, and contribute to the government’s Foreign Employee Welfare Fund. “The expenses add up to around Rs70,000 to Rs80,000,” said Bhusal.

“A zero cost hiring deal would be good,” said Bhusal, “but the earning in Israel outweighs the expenses the employees have to bear.”

Published on: 17 August 2022 | The Kathmandu Post


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