HomeNewsFilipino and Thai workers in Israel narrowly escape death

Filipino and Thai workers in Israel narrowly escape death

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MANILA — When the alarm rang at dawn, Irene Repuela Torres had 15 seconds to usher the aged Israeli-American couple she worked for as a caregiver into the bomb shelter. But her employer, whom she called her lola, the Filipino word for grandmother, insisted on going to the bathroom first.

Torres looked outside and caught a glimpse of men on a motorcycle, brandishing assault rifles. One of them shot at the window and Torres ran into the shelter for cover.

The gunmen were soon battering at the door and as they crashed through, Torres darted from the safe room, grabbed her lola from the bathroom and pulled her into the shelter, slamming the door shut. The sound of gunshots were everywhere.

“If I didn’t, she would be dead,” said Torres, 25. Together they waited in the reinforced shelter for 35 hours while gunshots echoed outside, a sign of the terrible slaughter being inflicted. “I wouldn’t be able to take it if I left my employer outside.”

Amid the horrific stories of Israeli communities murdered and people carried off as hostages by the Hamas attackers, the acute vulnerability of Israel’s tens of thousands of migrant workers, many from Southeast Asia, has often been overlooked.

At least two Filipinos have been confirmed killed so far in southern Israel, according to the Philippine government. They worked as caregivers and died with their employers, overseas community organizers told The Washington Post. About two-thirds of the 30,000 Filipinos in Israel are in care work.

At least 21 Thai workers have been killed so far as well and another 14 have been taken hostage, reported the Thai government. There are 30,000 Thai citizens working in Israel, overwhelmingly in the agricultural sector.

The global agricultural industry is already one of the most hazardous, failing to meet international standards on basic rights and relying on a migrant workforce to exploit their vulnerability, labor rights advocates say. “It’s exacerbated when it takes place in conflict zones,” said David Welsh, Thailand country director of international labor rights organization Solidarity Center.

The Thailand Ministry of Foreign Affairs said it has called for the safe release of its citizens and reached out to Palestinian authorities to help facilitate this. Both the Philippines and Thailand have condemned the violence in broad terms.

Surachai Seehajumpa, 40, came to Israel last year to pay off debt and save up to buy property. Work at his farm around 60 miles from Gaza carries on as usual — but he and his colleagues now can hear explosions in the distance. He regularly checks the news to see how the violence is escalating, and if it is time to join 5,000 other Thai nationals seeking passage home.

“If the Hezbollah or Taliban decide to collaborate the attacks on Israel, I will definitely decide to return to Thailand,” he said.

A labor worker in Israel can earn around $1,300 a month, around five times more than minimum wage in Thailand. Seehajumpa’s farm recently took in two other Thai workers fleeing violence. For now, Seehajumpa and his 10 companions have no interest in returning home.

Protections for migrant workers depend on their contracts, relationships with employers and government schemes, said Filipino social worker and volunteer Agnes Hoffman, who has lived in Israel for 26 years. The ongoing conflict highlights the urgency of a longtime proposal from community leaders for the Philippine government to support a permanent shelter for temporary workers, she added.

“There are always Filipinos who take in other Filipinos … but those aren’t their permanent homes,” said Hoffman, who also urged authorities to provide for psychological aid to shellshocked workers in their first language.

Sally Macadini, a 38-year-old Filipino caregiver, also managed to get her elderly employer into the safe room just as the attack happened. On the chat group she maintained with fellow caregivers, she found out that a colleague a few houses away had been unable save her employer, who was shot dead.

She watched the news on the television in the safe room, relaying updates to her fellow caregivers via chat. Many hours later, there was a banging on the door but she and her employer stayed silent until she was informed on the group chat that the IDF had arrived.

“I’ve never felt fear and nerves like that before,” Macadini said over a phone call after reaching safety, just before a session with an Israeli social worker. “The seconds of our lives were running out.”

As for whether she would leave Israel, she is still undecided. She said she felt an obligation both to the family she worked for in Israel, and her family relying on her support at home. “We’re in doubt knowing how hard life in the Philippines is,” Macadini said. “If we go home, how do we make a living?”

Vasapa Wanichwethin reported from Bangkok.

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