With Israel at war and haemorrhaging workers to harvest its crops, Africa fills the gap

Over 10,000 foreign agricultural workers have left Israel since Hamas attacked the country on 7 October, triggering the ongoing war. Among those killed or taken hostage were dozens of Thai, Nepalese and Filipino labourers who worked on Israeli farms.

The preponderance of southeast Asian farm labourers in Israel is a function of the Israeli decision, following the first Palestinian Intifada, in the late 1980s, to drastically curtail the number of Palestinians allowed to work in its farms and other facilities. To fill the resulting gap, Israel opened its doors to southeast Asians, even going so far as to ink bilateral agreements regulating the practice with countries like Thailand.

Unfortunately, as is sadly to be expected wherever migrant workers are involved, it hasn’t been smooth sailing. There have been credible allegations of poor working conditions, remuneration below minimum wage, lack of access to medical care, sub-standard living conditions, and other forms of mistreatment of these workers by their Israeli employers.

Nevertheless, southeast Asian workers have come to dominate the migrant labour force of Israeli farms. It’s largely a mutually beneficial relationship; the migrants get a job and the chance to support their dependents back home through remittances, and Israeli farms get an abundant supply of relatively low-cost labour.

Looking south

But now, a lot of these workers have left, or are leaving, many with the support of their governments. Additionally, for obvious reasons, Israel has closed its doors to Palestinians, who made up almost a fifth of its agricultural labour force before the war. About 360,000 Israeli reservists have been called up. According to CNN, Israel needs 30 to 40,000 farm workers. And so, the country finds itself, once again, in the midst of a dire shortage of farm labour. To plug this shortage, Israeli officials have turned south, to Africa.

Things have moved swiftly. Malawi has already sent 221 youngsters, and plans to send another 5,000. Kenya has announced that it is sending 1,500. Recruitment is ongoing in Tanzania, and Uganda is also under consideration. These East African countries have student internship programmes with Israel, which, per the country’s ambassador to Kenya, Michael Lotem, makes them ideal candidates.

While the wisdom of African governments actively encouraging their citizens to seek employment in a country that not only faces allegations of poor treatment of workers, but is also actively at war, is questionable, there is no doubt that, in the foreseeable future at least, many low-skill African workers will leave the continent to work in farms and other such facilities in the rest of the world.


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One of the consequences of Africa’s anomalous population growth, relative to the rest of the world, is that the continent will soon have the world’s largest working-age population. A lot of these people will be educated well enough for white-collar jobs. Many will be qualified for the various trades. A large number won’t get that far.

And, unless all African countries can pull off sustained economic growth for the foreseeable future, it’s highly unlikely that all of these young people will find work on the continent. Meanwhile, as the rest of the world ages, many countries are bound to find themselves unable to fill up employment opportunities, especially those at the more menial end of the scale.

Workers' rights

In short, there will be many migrant workers in the coming years, and a significant number of them will come from Africa. This is already the case with domestic and construction workers across the Middle East, and health and care workers in Europe. The era of African migrant labourers is just dawning.

This raises two important issues. The first concerns the countries to which these migrant workers will go. What means will they use to attract them? How will they regulate the industry that arises around their recruitment? And, most importantly, how will they handle cases of mistreatment and abuse, like those that have been raised against Israeli farmers?

The second issue concerns whether, and how, the governments of African countries will handle the matter. Will they try to force their citizens to stay home, or will they actively encourage them to leave, inking deals with their destination countries, or will they look aside as their citizens fumble their way around the world, adrift and without the protection of their own governments? How many will be able to create enough jobs to discourage their citizens from leaving?

Perhaps no one has the answers to these questions right now. But one thing we do know for sure is that this is bound to happen. If in no other case, here demography is destiny. And while countries like Israel have woken up to reality, others, like the United Kingdom, which have heretofore had their pick of the most highly skilled workers from Africa, are now trying to stymie their arrival.

How long will it be before it comes back to the continent, bowl in hands, begging for workers?

Mathew Otieno is a Kenyan writer, blogger and dilettante farmer. Until 2022, he was a research communications coordinator at a university in Nairobi, Kenya. He now lives in rural western Kenya, near the shores of Lake Victoria, from where he's pursuing a career as a full-time writer while concluding his dissertation for a master's degree. His first novel is due out this year.

Image: Pexels


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  • Paul Bunyan
    commented 2023-12-15 09:05:10 +1100
    In the near future, there won’t be any food to harvest. :(


    “Crops grown in the United States are critical for the food supply here and around the world. U.S. farms supply nearly 25% of all grains (such as wheat, corn, and rice) on the global market.4 Changes in temperature, atmospheric carbon dioxide (CO2), and the frequency and intensity of extreme weather could have significant impacts on crop yields.

    For any particular crop, the effect of increased temperature will depend on the crop’s optimal temperature for growth and reproduction.1 In some areas, warming may benefit the types of crops that are typically planted there, or allow farmers to shift to crops that are currently grown in warmer areas. Conversely, if the higher temperature exceeds a crop’s optimum temperature, yields will decline.

    More extreme temperature and precipitation can prevent crops from growing. Extreme events, especially floods and droughts, can harm crops and reduce yields. For example, in 2010 and 2012, high nighttime temperatures affected corn yields across the U.S. Corn Belt, and premature budding due to a warm winter caused $220 million in losses of Michigan cherries in 2012."
  • mrscracker
    Israel should have been doing its own agricultural work all along. But I agree that with the global birth dearth worsening, workers will be in higher demand.