Foreign students at Israeli university ‘made to work on farm’

Tel Aviv University launches investigation into complaints made by African and Asian learners on industry-backed master’s

March 20, 2019
Migrant farm workers in Israel
Source: Shutterstock
A hard row: 'we harvested and planted alongside workers from Thailand. Sometimes we worked 16 hours a day’

One of Israel’s leading universities has launched an investigation into claims that international students from Africa and Asia were put to work on farms, sometimes labouring for 12 hours or more a day.

Students felt “humiliated and exploited” after their experience on the master’s course in plant sciences at Tel Aviv University, which is operated in partnership with a company called the Arava International Center for Agricultural Training, Haaretz reported. The newspaper said that the 15-month course, which costs NIS22,000 (£4,600) in tuition fees, consisted of only a single month on campus.

The other 14 months were spent on a farm run by Arava, with two days a week of studying and three or four days a week of work, according to Haaretz.

The students were on student visas, which prohibit them from working, and the farm work had been presented as the practical element of the course, but the students said that the tasks they performed had little to do with their academic fields, the report says. Admission to the course, which has been running since 2014, requires a BSc in life sciences or a related field.

Michal Tadjer, a labour and immigration attorney at the Worker’s Hotline (Kav La’Oved) non-governmental organisation, who is representing one of the students in a lawsuit against Arava, told Times Higher Education that students were made to do gruelling work but felt that they could not leave for fear of jeopardising their degree.

Tel Aviv’s website bills the plant sciences programme as combining “academic research with hands-on agricultural experience in the Arava desert, Israel’s largest vegetable exporting region”.

However, one student told Haaretz that they had ended up “harvesting and planting alongside workers from Thailand. Sometimes we worked 16 hours a day.”

Ms Tadjer said that the students’ experience was deeply concerning. “This would not have happened to white European students,” she said.

Details of the case have emerged just weeks after Israel announced plans to double its intake of international students by 2022. Given many Western students’ opposition to the country’s treatment of Palestinians, increasing recruitment in Africa and Asia is seen as key to the success of this strategy.

Philip Altbach, founding director of the Center for International Higher Education at Boston College, said that it would hinder Israel being seen as a welcoming country for international students.

“The optics of this are about as bad as it gets – using students from developing countries as ‘indentured agricultural labour’,” he said.

A Tel Aviv spokeswoman told THE that the plant sciences programme “meets high academic standards” and claimed that some of the points made in the Haaretz article were “inaccurate”.

“The university treats the matter at hand with utmost gravity. The university will never give a hand to exploitation of students or any human being,” she said, adding that the university had “appointed an investigation committee to examine the claims raised”.

Arava told Haaretz that the programme had so far graduated 64 students, “all of whom went back to their home countries and received quality jobs”.

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