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Katif Farmers Fear Collapse as Thai Workers Flee
Terrorist attacks and pressure by the government of Thailand has led to an exodus of Thai workers from Gush Katif in the Gaza Strip, and farmers there are said to fear a collapse of their farms.
Thailand's Labor Minister Uraiwan Thienthong and its ambassador to Israel, Kasivat Paruggamanont, met on Saturday night with approximately 150 Thai workers in Gush Katif to ask them to leave the area as soon as possible. The meeting had been scheduled before 20-year-old Chitladda Tab-Asa was killed last week in a rocket attack on the hothouses of Ganei Tal, the third Thai worker killed since since the beginning of this year.
"Our main concern is for your security," the minister told the gathering.
When she asked the workers how many wanted to leave, more than half raised their hands and after the meeting, dozens came forward to add their names to the list being prepared by the Thai embassy. Dozens are said to have asked the agencies that employ them to find them alternative positions inside Israel or else a ticket home.
But workers explained to the minister that not everyone who wants to leave can. Some, who have been here for over five years and whose visas have expired, are afraid to leave the area for fear of being deported. Others say their employers owe them money and they don't want to leave until they are paid, or their employers refuse to allow them to leave for another job.
The number of Thai workers in Gush Katif is estimated at 300, according to the Thai embassy, while local farmers and the Industry, Trade and Employment Ministry set the number at 500.
The Thai embassy has been putting pressure on the workers to leave Gush Katif since the beginning of the intifada. A year ago, the embassy even asked all those who wanted to stay in the area to sign a waiver absolving the Thai government of responsibility for their welfare. Pressure mounted after the killing of another Thai worker, Warashee Wongafot, in a mortar attack in June.
Together with its pressure on the workers, the Thai government began to take action against Israeli and Thai labor firms sending Thai workers to Gush Katif, and have closed down some of these companies in Thailand for a limited period. As a result, no new Thai workers are coming to the Gush.
Despite the pressure, most of the workers prefer to stay. One of the most common explanations is that the immigration police do not operate in Gush Katif, and therefore, the settlements have become a "city of refuge" for workers who have left exploitive employers or whose visas have expired.
Another reason Thai workers are said to prefer working in Gush Katif is that as opposed to other areas of the country, Sabbath observance there ensures them a day of rest. Gush farmers say they have to pay higher wages to the workers to keep them there, another reason for them to stay.
Gush Katif farmers have begun hiring workers from Nepal to replace the departing Thais. Several farmers approached Minister Thienthong and asked her to at least delay the departure of the Thai workers until they could train new workers in order to prevent the collapse of the region's agriculture. The minister and the ambassador refused to discuss the subject.
Gush Katif farmers say winter is the most labor-intensive season for geranium and spice production. "There is a real concern that all the Thais will leave and it will simply ruin us all," said a Ganei Tal farmer. "The embassy has been pressuring the workers to leave for the past five years, but now the workers themselves want to leave. We hope this wave will pass, too."