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Kenya Follows Malawi in Sending Farm Workers to Israel Amid Hamas War

Kenya is sending 1,500 farm workers to Israel, the labour ministry has said.

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), Kenya said.

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 announcement has sparked mixed reactions in Kenya, with some concerned about the workers’ safety.

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.

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.”

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.”

A 31-year-old man in Lilongwe told the BBC he would be travelling to Israel soon to take up a job after being unemployed for four years.

“My email address has more than 300 sent messages applying for jobs. I have diploma and a bachelor’s degree,” said Alex, who asked for his surname to be withheld.

He does have some safety concerns.

“We have been assured that the conflict has nothing to do with us. They told us about security measures like missiles detectors and safe houses.”

Source : BBC