Opinions & Features March 29, 2019 at 04:00 pm

African students lament exploitation on a farm in Israel for a master’s degree

Ismail Akwei March 29, 2019 at 04:00 pm

March 29, 2019 at 04:00 pm | Opinions & Features

Tel Aviv University entrance -- Photo: Tel Aviv University (TAU)

26-year-old Emmanuel Samson who graduated from the University of Calabar in Nigeria with a B.Sc. in Microbiology did not know what was awaiting him at the Tel Aviv University in Israel where he was admitted to study for a master’s degree in food security.

He was among 16 graduate students from Africa and Asia who studied at the university for only one month of the 15-month degree programme and then worked on a farm for long hours in the Arava region as part of the requirement, reveals an investigation by the local Haaretz portal.

“When I came to Israel I was taken from the airport to Ein Yahav with two other students from Nigeria and Kenya and the next day we started to work packing dates. Then I worked planting melons,” Samson told an Israeli court after exploitation and illegal employment case was filed against the university.

When I worked with the dates I usually worked 11 or 12 hours a day. Some days I worked 16 hours. No learning was involved. Usually, the Thai laborers showed us what to do. Every time large sums were taken out of my pay,” he added.

Emmanuel Samson – Credit: Eliyahu Hershkovitz

The farm where they worked was under the authority of a company called Development and Construction in the Arava, which operates the Arava International Center for Agricultural Training.

The students, who studied at the university for a month in July, only had two days a week of studies in the Arava region and three to four days of work on the farm for 12 or more hours a day, seven of the students who remained anonymous told Haaretz while adding that it was not what they were told about the programme.

Emmanuel Samson was the only bold student who risked his master’s degree and graduation to testify at the Be’er Sheva District Labor Court about the harsh conditions of his “internship.”

The suit was filed on his behalf by attorney Michal Tager, head of the workers’ rights group Kav La’oved, and Hani Ben-Israel of the clinic for immigrants and refugees at the Herzliya Interdisciplinary Center, stated Haaretz.

Their student visas did not allow them to work in Israel and the university failed to address complaints about the illegalities involved in the programme when contacted by the workers’ rights group.

“The program was established and is overseen by the university committee for master’s degrees, and until October 2018 was overseen by an oversight committee in keeping with the demands of the university,” the university responded to Kav La’oved.

It added that the claims were not academic and the master’s degree committee deals “with academic issues only, it was decided not to discuss the matter in the committee,” quotes Haaretz.

Arava International Center for Agricultural Training – Credit: Arava International Center for Agricultural Training

During the graduation ceremony of the graduate students in early March, the Tel Aviv University Vice President Raanan Rein praised the programme despite the complaints and labelled it a dream come true for the students.

Samson and an anonymous student from Kenya expressed their disappointment in the university to Haaretz. “It’s sad that an institution like Tel Aviv University would help exploit people who don’t know what they’re coming for,” said Samson.

“We were simply exploited. The only time I saw the owner, the farmer, was in planting season and then it was important for him, otherwise he would lose money. They saw us as laborers,” he added.

The Arava International Center for Agricultural Training told Haaretz that the programme is giving training to students from developing countries and combining an academic degree from a leading university along with exposure to advanced applied agriculture in the Arava.

It added that 64 students have so far graduated from the programme “all of whom went back to their home countries and received quality jobs in government ministries, universities and commercial companies.”

This claim was put before Samson in court by the company’s lawyer, Hofit Kahane, who said Samson had worked at a “huge packing house with the most modern technology.”

“A master’s degree in food security – what does that have to do with a packing house? I lifted crates of five kilos 13 stories from 6 A.M. to 7 P.M,” Samson responded in court while insisting on his claim that he was not informed of his employment condition in writing and he was not properly compensated for overtime, expenses and benefits. A claim the company denies.

The Tel Aviv University later told Haaretz on March 8 that it will establish a team that will assess the claims brought against Development and Construction in the Arava and release a report.

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