A filmed report published on the BBC News website’s ‘Middle East’ page on November 23rd was presented with the headline “Thai labourers in Israel tell of harrowing conditions“.
“A year-long BBC investigation has discovered widespread abuse of Thai nationals living and working in Israel – under a scheme organised by the two governments.
Many are subjected to unsafe working practices and squalid, unsanitary living conditions. Some are overworked, others underpaid and there are dozens of unexplained deaths.”
In the middle of that three-minute and ten second long product of “a year-long BBC investigation” viewers are rightly told that:
“Under Israeli law, Thai workers’ rights are well protected.”
However the film goes on:
“But they depend on the farmers for food, shelter and a work visa. Many are too scared to complain as they fear losing their income.”
Viewers are not told that under Israeli law (p.17):
“The law prohibits an employer from dismissing an employee or reducing his salary or terms of employment due to any complaint or claim filed by the employee, or due to the fact that he assisted another employee, in good faith, to file such a complaint or claim. An employer who behaves in this manner towards his foreign worker has performed a criminal offense for which a complaint can be filed as above.”
The film next goes on to clarify that – presumably on the basis of complaints made by workers to the Ministry of Labour’s Foreign Workers’ Rights Ombudsman – in the past five years the ministry has carried out “more than 1,500 investigations…into pay and working hours” and that the ministry has issued 3,000 warnings and 200 fines.
While – as the ministry’s statement bears out – there are undoubtedly cases in which Thai workers are abused despite the existence of laws protecting them, the makers of this film did not bother to clarify that “unsanitary living conditions” such as the cooker shown in parts of the film also depend on the workers themselves.
Despite that factual interlude, the overall messaging of this film by BBC Thai’s Issariya Praithongyaem is to imply a link between the workers’ conditions and what are described as “unexplained deaths”. Viewers are told that:
“Workers also told us that they were afraid of spraying chemicals. Israel’s use of pesticides is among the highest in the world. Long term exposure has been linked to several illnesses. Many workers told us they regularly spray chemicals without proper protection.”
No source is given for the BBC’s claim that the use of pesticides in Israel “is among the highest in the world” and viewers get no information whatsoever on the subject of the types of pesticides in use in Israel. With the Ministry of Agriculture having initiated a process banning pesticides an insecticides containing organic phosphates, triazines and hydrocarbon chlorides five years ago, the question of which pesticides the Thai workers are spraying and whether or not protective clothing is mandated for the specific chemical is obviously relevant.
While indeed long-term exposure to some pesticides has been linked to “several illnesses”, the BBC’s film does not bother to clarify which pesticides or which illnesses and viewers are not informed that the appearance of most of those illnesses would take considerably longer than the maximum 63 month stay of foreign workers in Israel.
In the later part of the film viewers are told that:
“Wicha Duangdeegaew is one of 172 workers who’ve died since 2012. In Wicha’s case and many other cases, the cause of death is “undetermined”. Doctors don’t have answers and autopsies are rarely carried out.”
As was clarified in an article that appeared in Ha’aretz last year, autopsies are conducted at the request of the police when there is a suspicion that the cause of death is not natural. Additionally, the Thai embassy can request an autopsy either on its own behalf or on the family’s behalf. Ha’aretz reported that it was told by the Thai embassy that in every case of the death of a Thai worker in Israel, the embassy contacts the family, asks what their wishes are and acts accordingly.
Viewers of this film are not told whether or not Wicha Duangdeegaew’s family actually requested an autopsy.
Perhaps most significantly, this film makes no effort to inform BBC audiences that some 40% of the deaths of Thai workers in Israel are attributed to Sudden Unexpected Nocturnal Death Syndrome (SUNDS) – a condition predominantly affecting young men from Southeast Asia.
As the BBC itself reported three years ago, additional causes of death in the years 2008 to 2013 “ranged from accidents, alcohol poisoning, heart failure and suffocation, to fire, suicide, beating and stabbing, Israel’s Ministry of Health says”. In that period of time autopsies were not performed in 18% of the cases – a figure which hardly bears out the BBC’s current claim that “autopsies are rarely carried out”.
Clearly – despite being a year in the making – this film fails to provide the full range of information necessary for audiences to understand its subject matter. Instead viewers (and at least one fellow BBC journalist) have been steered towards an overall impression of “abuse” and the speculation that there is a connection between the “undetermined” deaths of Thai workers and the use of pesticides, with no evidence whatsoever provided to support that claim and the most frequent cause of death among those workers – SUNDS – completely erased from audience view.