“If God would've taken us out of Egypt and not executed judgment upon them, it would've been enough for us – Dayenu.”
I went to visit my students, Tzai Num and Tzai Zei Hleng in Idan in March 2016 with a lawyer from Kav LaOved. She needed an affidavit from them, to add to her file for the case she said would go to the Supreme Court in Israel. I felt an overwhelming sense of admiration for these two boys, who had the courage to tell their story, in a situation where others could not. As we left the moshav in Idan, the farmer’s family drove past us in their four-wheel drive, young toddlers strapped safely into the back seat. I snapped a glance at a little girl and wondered about her future, whether she’d grow up tall, dye her hair, perhaps become a famous Batsheva dancer, a lawyer, or even perhaps, a judge.
The reason this story breaks my heart, over the plethora of personal stories of unfairness that exist and continue to manifest in the world, is that I knew these students as members of an organisation which encouraged and nurtured their idealism – their fervent belief in the democratic changes occuring in their nation Myanmar – their conviction that they could improve their communities through grass-roots approaches. These students had painted a slogan on the walls of their classrooms that, ‘Nothing was impossible, if …’ and they would complete this sentence with an undaunted, childlike optimism, an optimism which these two boys had managed to foster throughout their experiences described here.
I saw their facebook posts as they boarded their first international flight – full of wholehearted zeal for their approaching scholarship program – that would make them valuable citizens in their local communities – communities that had been impeded by civil conflict for generations. I was delighted for them when I saw the smiling photos of them at Yangon airport in August, 2015 when they departed on their journey to Israel. In truth, I was a little envious as it was a place I had always wanted to travel to. What an opportunity this was for them – poor students from Myanmar – to go to swim in the dead sea, and also gain agricultural knowledge, skills and qualifications from an advanced society like Israel. Unknowingly, I replied to their post – you will return a different person! I cannot say that my prevailing concern that their idealism has not been crushed by this experience, is not a reality for them.
Is it to be described as ironic that they cast their first ever democratic vote at the embassy in October in Tel Aviv, active citizens of a nation in transformation? In my current role as a teacher in an international school, one of my students recently called out during an unrelated discussion: “Teacher, what is slavery?” He caught me off-guard. There was five minutes left of the final lesson of the day, and, I was speechless. How could I explain to this thirteen year-old boy the unforgiving reality of that word, slavery?
These two students from Shan State, Myanmar were misled by both an organisation that they trusted, and one that promoted itself on the very idealism that they believed in. The Arava International Centre for Agricultural Training (AICAT) deceived these students and their local organisation by claiming to provide students with agricultural practices that could be passed on to their impoverished local communities. In the “about” section of the AICAT facebook page it states:
“The center was established in 1994 in order to train students [in] agriculture from developing countries: the Far East & Africa. The goal for trainees, on return to their countries, is to gain a better and more advanced agriculture and food production knowledge. The center receives the support and encouragement of the Government Ministries in Israel and works with the Ministries of Education and Agriculture from the students' countries of origin.”
In reality, as the links below explain in detail, this program is a way for the Israeli agricultural industry to recruit more migrant workers. Yet another irony is that under Israeli law, it is illegal for students to seek employment. The lawyer from Kav Laoved noted numerous breaches of Israeli law and of the contracts they were provided with.
One idea I endeavour to instil in my students is that everyone has a voice. Everyone deserves to be heard. I encouraged the boys to tell their story, and here it is. All I ask, is that you hear their voice. And listen with an empathetic ear.
(Teacher of Kaw Dai Students in 2014)
Tzai Zei Hleng
It was last year when we had just finished the Kaw Dai Intensive English Program in Yangon and came back to our home in Kali, Shan State, Myanmar. One day the coordinator, Tzai Pong Kong and manager, Nang Heao Seng, called us (Tzai Num, my fellow student, and me). They showed us a document. It was an application for a scholarship for an educational and job training program, run through AICAT (Arava International Centre for Agricultural Training) in Israel. The application was send to Kaw Dai by the leader of the Shan Literature and Culture Association in Taungyi, Myanmar.
Normally, according to the rules of the Kaw Dai Organization, students who just come back from the Intensive English Program in Yangon cannot apply for any scholarship. Actually, we would have to serve (work) for Kaw Dai in Shan State for one year, as a teacher or a similar role within our local communities. Then, students could apply for our state scholarship. But, the Israeli job training application stipulated that only students who hold a Bachelor Degree could apply for this program. Last year in Kaw Dai, there were no students before our batch who had a Bachelor degree. In the program, only Tzai Num and I held a Bachelor Degree.
It was also the first time Kaw Dai had encouraged students to apply for this Israeli program. We did not actually have the information about this program. As the coordinator said, we only knew that Israel had advanced farming techniques. Part of our organization’s mission and vision is to equip us with skills which we can then contribute to our local communities in Shan State. When we were asked whether we wanted to go to Yangon to apply for the training, we both enthusiastically decided to join the program.
One month later, we both were called for the interview at the Myanmar Fishery Federation (MFF) in Yangon. So, I went to Yangon from Kali. Tzai Num was from Lashio. The interview was so easy and simple. They asked whether we had a Bachelor in hand and how fluent our English was. In the interview, they told us how Israeli agriculture is impressive. They told us that not only could we study but we could also make some money from our work.
In the month of August we had to prepare for our flight. We were responsible for our flight tickets. It cost about 1,000,000 Myanmar kyats. Kaw Dai paid for that and we had to pay back that money to the program after we came back from Israel. And our organization required that we had to serve for five years when we came back to Myanmar from abroad. We both signed the contracts with Kaw Dai in Yangon.
On August the 9th, we left Myanmar and on the morning of the 10th we arrived in Israel. As soon as we arrived, a woman, the teacher from the training program –Arava International Centre for Agriculture Training (AICAT) – came to take us. She took us to the Arava region where they do farming. She separated our groups and sent us to different Moshavims. At the Moshav centre, the farmers were waiting to take each group of students to their farm. With two other students, Tzai Num and I were taken to Farm No. (33), Mr Oniel’s farm in Ein Yahav Moshav. On his farm there were 14 students from Myanmar and two from Thailand.
As soon as we arrived at this farm, all students were really disappointed. The accommodation was really bad. The room, the bed, the place to cook and the toilet were really dirty. That month is the hottest time in Israel, but most of the rooms we stayed in did not have air-conditioning. We all, 14 students, had a share of one refrigerator. Sometimes it broke down; the farmer didn’t care. They never came and fixed it. It took about a week to use it again. Sometimes it took even longer. In our (Tzai Num and my) room, there was no electric bulb for one and half a months since we arrived there.
We had to start to go to work as soon as we arrived. On the afternoon of the 10th, the farmer came and asked us to prepare food and water for the next morning. Actually, he was not really friendly. On that afternoon, we were busy cleaning the bedroom. The room was dirty and full of dust. There were no materials for cleaning the room. Yes, of course the place couldn’t be slept in without cleaning. Could you imagine that the place you lie your back is even worse than a place for a domestic dog kept in a house? How did we overcome this situation? We took our clothes, then sank them in water and cleaned the room. Even then, we could only clean dust in the room but we couldn’t manage our beds to be better. We just lied on that mess.
We did not have anything to cook for dinner that night. There was a gas stove inside the apartment we stayed in. But there was no gas. Nor were there materials for cooking. Then we went to the small market there. We were looking for the products we needed. We could not buy what we wanted because everything was expensive. The price was double as this place was too far from town. In our hands, there was only a little money left. We were lucky that Heao Hseng, the office manager from Yangon, gave us each 100US dollars when we left Yangon. We both bought one rice cooker there, a pack of rice and some packets of Yum Yum noodles. We also had to buy a mask and a hat there. The farmer did not provide for any security clothing to work in the field. For that night, we cooked noodles in the rice cooker. I still remember we both could not eat sitting in front of the cooker. We had never been in such a situation. We were really despaired as what we had expected and what we were exposed to were very different.
On the morning of the 11th at 4:00am we had to get ready to wait for the tractor. So, at about 3:30am we had to get up and prepare. At 4:00am when the tractor came, there were about 20 Thai workers coming with farmers. The farmer came down the tractor and said: “You … Burma, you must work hard in the field. No talking. No sitting. I pay you money. You must work very hard.’’ And he turned to the Thailand workers and asked them, “Hey, Thailand ... Burma no work ….’’ and he asked the Thai workers to beat us if we didn’t work by showing them to how to punch and how to kick. Seeing this situation how would you feel? We came as students to study agriculture, but we were being treated as slaves. Working in the field is non-stop working. In this situation, the farmer always comes and shouts at us all the time. Whenever he came, he always said: “You Burma … Balagan … you sleep! We are working!” In the field he also said: “Thailand no work; no problem. Watch Burma … Burma no work!” Then he would show them how to beat us.
According to the contract we had signed, the payment should have been 25NS per hour and 31.25NS for overtime. When it came to discuss about the wage, the farmer said he would pay 25 shekels per hour according to Israeli law. But for extra hours, would pay us 19 shekels against the payment 31.25 shekels for extra working hours. He said, “it is okay if we do not want to work for extra hours.” In this case, there are many conditions that force many students have to work for extra hours with illegal payment (19 shekels). There were deductions for school fees (2000NS) on each student in every first five months and an accommodation fee of 800 shekels every month. Without the extra work hours, each student may make around 3400NS in each month. So students couldn’t make any spare money for each month without working extra hours. It may not cover their expenses for each month. As I mentioned, some students took loans from the bank and they had to pay this back as fast as possible because the interest will be higher. Thus, they must work whatever the situation.
For some of us, we did not work extra hours for them. We spent little of what we have to be enough. But there was one condition. The farmer did not treat us well then. The day we did not work an extra hour for him and came back home early, the electricity was cut off. The day you do not go to work, that day no electricity.
One day, one student was not feeling well. He asked me to tell the farmer when we went to work. I went to tell the farmer, and instead of coming to take him to a clinic, he said, “What? Stomach Pain? Is he not dead?”. I was really angry but I could do nothing. How different the situation was from that which the coordinator of AICAT had described in Yangon: “You are going to stay with the farmers like a big family. The farmers will take care of whatever you need.” It was just a lie.
What else you can do in this situation? To come and study, most students had borrowed money for their flight. For the two of us, we took from the Kaw Dai Organization. Of course we know our organization well, but we could not write to them anything unless we had enough information. We had only one hope that we would learn something when we went to the school. The school day was only once a week. So the two of us decided to wait and see how the training program at the school was.
One week later, we went to school. They came and taught us about plant biology. It was not really interesting. There was no experiment. They did this by simply showing a powerpoint and explained to us about plants. The lesson for one day was ended. Every week was just the same. One farmer, he came in and just said, “bla...bla”. There was no topic. We were astounded. He told us how a tractor works. He explained to us how to change gears, and how the brake works. I studied mechanical engineering and therefore did not even have an interest in his lessons. So, what about the others who are in agricultural study?
After staying there for one month and after we knew the situation, Tzai Num and I wrote a report to the Kaw Dai Organization. And their replies looked like they thought we did not want to risk under the conditions we met. Seeing this situation, to be honest we were not really satisfied with their suggestion. But it is certain that they didn’t really know what had happened to us in Israel. We decided to come for this training. We believe that if Kaw Dai knew the situation they would not send us either. We had no choice. We had to stay and work there whether we liked it or not. We did not have any money for our flight. On the other hand, we had taken money from Kaw Dai to come here. Even if we could go back and give Kaw Dai back the money we owed, somebody’s criticism behind us was unavoidable without knowing the actual conditions. They were the reasons the two of us kept dwelling in Israel.
We had to adapt to the situation. Life there was really challenging for us. Every day, we went to work at 4:00am and finished work at 6:00pm. Some of us worked five days a week. Other students there went to work for six days a week. We went to the school once a week. For not working for him on Sunday the farmer did not really like us.
In the working field, we had to do whatever the Thai workers said, being scolded almost everyday. There were 30 minutes breaktime for lunch. One day a friend of mine, he said a joke to us and we were all laughing. The Thai worker came and scolded us, (saying bad things ... like ‘shit’ to us) and saying that we were noisy. But they were also all laughing and talking a lot. They were workers. We were supposed to be students, we had come here to complete a scholarship program. One day when we were waiting for the tractor to go to the field, one Thai worker came and slapped a student’s (Pyi Nyi Nyi San’s) face by saying that he talked too much. The student fought back. Then the fighting began. The worker went to his room and brought an axe to beat the students. Then all the students ran away. When we brought the case to the farmer, he did nothing. He could not give any punishment to his workers. It is simple. He needs the Thai workers.
Then we asked the school manager, but they also took no responsibility for the students. They just forced the farmer to ask the Thailand worker to come and shake hands with the student, not even apologize. Whenever the case was brought to the school office, they took no action on it. What else could we do when they didn’t care about us? Yet, of course some farmers will be good. But it is true that almost all of them are the same. They exploit the students more or less.
Facing many problems in Mr Oniel’s farm (33), we all wanted to change the farm. We asked the student leader (Thidar Win), who is a translator for Myanmar students, to change us to a different farm. It had been many times that we asked, by giving many reasons, but she procrastinated on the case. When we asked her for the office email, she did not even give it to us. Some students were afraid of being sent back home if they contacted the office. (Sent back home does not mean the school will send you back for free. You are responsible for your flight ticket. You must work until you have enough money.) Only three of us had decided that whatever may happen we would face it. If we were not changed to the better farmer, we were going to go back no matter what that meant for us. Then we found the office email ourselves and contacted the office.
It took us about two and half months to change the farm. Finally, three of us were changed to another farmer, Mr Ronen Chonen, in Idan moshav. This farmer has only one Thai worker. He also seemed to be a bit better than the previous farmer. We made the agreement with him that we would be paid 25NS for every working hour. But in his farm we had to work every day except the school day. So, there was no holiday. It was better than the previous farm as we are not being scolded in the field.
Working conditions were just the same. We went to the field. We twisted the tomato plants and strung the pepper plants. And we had to spray the chemicals onto the plants two days a week. It is awful that we didn’t know what chemicals we were spraying every week. It was all written in Hebrew. Sometimes we cleaned the weeds in the farm. Sometimes we had to go and clean the house of the farmer. By doing these things day after day, we felt like we were not students anymore. We were migrant workers then. We felt used to it later.
It had been about six months already. Our school fees (10,000NS) had been already taken from our pay. It was only four months to go. It was only four months left until the time we could go back home. We didn’t tell the Kaw Dai Organization what we were going through because whatever we sent was going be all the pessimistic side. By that time we received a message from Kaw Dai that we could go back home and not to wait until the program finished. Yes, we wanted to go back home. But it had been six months we had come across. We had overcome the most difficult situation we faced. We had not visited anywhere else in Israel. The travel schedule from school was coming soon. We decided to stay until the program finished and take time to travel in some places in Israel. Yes, it was the only advantage that we could briefly visit some of the famous places in Israel.
Finally, we all struggled with the difficulties and it was about time we could go back home. The problem was that our salary was not paid for two months already. Since we arrived at Mr. Ronen’s farm, we were always being given our pay late by about 25 days. When he came to give us money it was only a few days left until were were going home. But that time we got less money than what we expect to get. He deducted 800NS for each month since we were in his farm. Actually he had already deducted for the accommodation fee (800NS) for the previous months before. We argued with him about that. What else could you do? Just let it go. That is all we could do. Yes, we had wasted time by working as migrant workers for one year without getting knowledge or money.
From my knowledge and my experience that I have been exposed to in Israel, I would rather say this training program is just like a machinery for labor production for the insufficient workers in their field. As the training is not free, they can manage to keep their money to flow to the other countries. But they have there enough cheap labor for each year to enable and generate farming business very well.
For the students from developing countries who went to join the training, they can make some money out of their work. But a very little amount compared to the actual amount they are deserved. Because of the difference in currency exchange, it seems to be a lot inside their own country. If you want to collect and save some money, we cannot eat as the others. We reduced our expenses. We must work under hazardous conditions.
The problem is that most of the students are really ashamed to tell the truth about how they have been treated there. They told us you must at least have a Bachelor Degree to go to join this program. Yes, of course you left your country to complete a scholarship to study abroad. At the very least you receive the diploma granted by the Israeli authorities to then get a job inside your home country. Would you say that the program that you attended there is just a kind of lie? You wouldn’t say either.
For the new students to come, they also see only these opportunities. Whatever we tell them, they may not believe. As for me, seeing such exploitation, I would like to suggest to them not join this program anymore. As there is the problem of unemployment inside their country, there will be students who will join this program each year unless some new action is created or the government for each country is taking responsibility for it.
Kav LaOved explains that these ‘agricultural international scholarship programs’ are ways to recruit cheap migrant labour:
Kav LaOved describes an intended class action against fraudulent study programs:
AICAT Facebook Page:
Kaw Dai Organization Facebook Page: