Gaza Worker’s Death Raises Questions on Settlers’ Dependence on Thai Labor

The blood-soaked denim shirt did not immediately catch fire. But Jitrada Tab-a-sa’s husband and friends wanted to help release her soul to heaven, so they poured a stream of lighter fluid onto the shirt she had been wearing when a Palestinian mortar shell exploded next to her, killing her.

Soon the blue lump burned into a blaze of shreds and smoke.

The 20-year-old Thai woman died Dec. 14 from shrapnel wounds to the chest while she was washing dinner dishes in the small workers kitchen of a Jewish settlement in the Gaza Strip.

Tab-a-sa was one of some 350 workers from Thailand who work in the greenhouses and fields of Gush Katif, the Jewish settlement bloc in Gaza. Thai workers have become a mainstay of the agricultural industry in Gaza’s Jewish community.

Tab-a-sa was the third Thai worker to be killed in the Gaza crossfire since the intifada erupted in September 2000, and her death prompted new calls from the Thai government for the workers to leave Gaza.

On Sunday, the Thai labor minister, Uraiwan Thienthong, visited Israel and demanded that the Jewish state stop sending Thai workers to Gaza Strip settlements, Israel radio reported.

Tab-a-sa’s death also raised questions about the dependence of so many Jewish settlements on their labor. If the workers heed the calls from their government to leave, the agricultural industry of the Jewish settlements in Gaza — run largely with the help of Thai physical labor — would be devastated.

The Thai workers who come to Gush Katif are part of a larger pool of some 26,000 Thai workers in Israel and the territories, most of whom work in agriculture at kibbutzim and moshavim.

Complaints of substandard working conditions for these Thai laborers are widespread. The claims include salaries below the Israeli minimum wage — some workers say they earn just $22 a day and are not paid overtime — and small, overcrowded trailers for living quarters.

Some workers in the Jewish settlements in Gaza say they are both paid better and treated better by their employers here than their counterparts are inside Israel. In Gaza, they also do not have to worry about being deported by immigration police if they have overstayed their visa.

The Thai government has pleaded for them to evacuate Gaza.

“We are working hard to try to move them out of the area,” Thailand’s ambassador to Israel, Kasivat Paruggamanont, told Israel Television. But, he said, the workers are not as responsive as his government would like them to be.

Seventy-six mortars were fired last week at army posts and Jewish settlements in the Gush Katif area. In addition to the death of Tab-a-Sa, two civilians and 11 soldiers were reportedly injured in the attacks.

Many Thai workers say they have no alternative but to stay. Some are still paying back large debts owed to job placement companies that helped bring them to Israel, while others want a chance to earn back the money they invested to get here to help support their families back home.

Butham Namsoonboon, who works at a greenhouse in Ganei Tal, a moshav-style settlement in Gush Katif, said he is pleased with his $1,160 a month salary and has no desire to leave. The death of his friend, Tab-a-Sa, did, however shake him and his fellow workers deeply.

“I had been cooking shortly before and then later heard a boom and was afraid. It was chaos here,” said Namsoonboon, whose room was just a few feet away from the kitchen.

The day after Tab-a-sa’s death, her husband, Narongsak Suh-Goi, walked around in a daze holding a large photograph of himself with an arm draped around his young, smiling wife.

Adhering to a Thai custom of cleansing the home after a loved one dies, the workers swept and washed the floors of the narrow cement-walled building where they live together in dormitory-style rooms.

Most of the activity was focused at the end of the hallway — the kitchen where Tab-a-sa was killed. The workers’ feet crunched over broken glass, spilled sacks of dried red peppers and paprika as they sweep the floor. Chunks of concrete had been torn out of the wall by the mortar blast and the walls were splattered with a chalky gray debris.

The workers spoke quietly among themselves, carrying boxes of broken plates, squashed zucchinis and flattened silverware into the back of a wagon hitched to a tractor.

Shlomo Wasserteil, who owns the greenhouses where he raises 140 different breeds of geranium for export to Europe, said he has been employing Thai workers for the past 20 years. Of his approximately 30-person staff, three are Jews, a handful come from the nearby Palestinian town of Khan Yunis but the majority is Thai, he said.

He said he will miss Tab-a-sa, who had worked for him for the past two years, spoke Hebrew, and was in charge of the other workers. Wasserteil said she had told him recently she was not afraid of the mortar attacks, that she planned to stay on in Gaza.

This week her husband was flying home with her body to Thailand.

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