Exposing Malawi's dangerous secret labour deal with Israel

5 min read
07 December, 2023

At a time when states around the world scrambled to repatriate their nationals from Israel following Hamas' 7 October attack and the ensuing war on Gaza, one government appeared to take a drastic decision in the opposite direction by sending more of its citizens into Israel.

Malawi, a South African country gripped by an economic crisis and massive government spending cuts, is looking to fill Israel's need for foreign labourers to work in its farms and care sectors.

On 25 November, the first cohort of 221 young Malawians arrived in Israel to work on its farms as part of a controversial and secret labour migration deal signed between Lilongwe and Tel Aviv. Another 200 Malawians took off less than a week later.

The move has sparked a backlash from opposition politicians and human rights organisations, who questioned both the secrecy surrounding the deal and the safety of the workers as Israel wages a brutal war on the besieged Gaza Strip and Hamas fires rockets in response to the attacks.

"Authorities say that up to 5,000 Malawians could go to Israel over the next few months"

A secret deal

Details about the deal were first made public on 23 November by Kondwani Nankhumwa, leader of the main opposition Democratic Progressive Party, after he questioned the agreement in an address at parliament. The move prompted Malawi's labour ministry to make an announcement on 24 November declaring that it had engaged in labour export agreements with numerous countries, including Israel, in a bid to tackle youth unemployment.

The ministry alleged that the young labourers sent to Israel would work in "certified" and "safe" environments, with access to medical insurance and repatriation arrangements. Israel's ambassador Michael Lotem said the foreign labourers would earn about $1,500 a month, according to some reports.

Young men in Malawi showed a willingness to migrate, according to local media reports, to escape the challenging conditions in the country. An Israeli agent was reportedly still recruiting more young people for jobs in Israel, with long queues being witnessed at a hotel in central Lilongwe, according to domestic media reports.

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Malawi has been grappling with a shortage of foreign exchange, causing disruptions in businesses and resulting in a scarcity of vital commodities such as fuel. The country was also experiencing a cost-of-living crisis which was exacerbated by the central bank's decision to devalue the national currency, the kwacha, by 44 percent.

A deal with Israel would generate foreign exchange as well as employment for the nation's 20 million people, of whom only 9 percent are formally employed. Meanwhile, in Israel, a gap in labourers has grown as Asian foreign workers fled the country while Gazan Palestinians - who tended to farms - were barred from entering since 7 October. On top of the foreign exodus, some 350,000 Israelis were called up into the military.

Governance analyst Victor Chipofya said that although the deal could be lucrative for Malawi, the lack of transparency from the government raised a lot of questions on "whether it is being done in good faith or not".

Palestinians work the fields in Gaza
Israel has banned Palestinian workers since the Gaza war began. [Getty]

Speaker Catherine Gotani Hara had reportedly attempted to hide the deal from legislators by pushing debate on the matter to 27 November, by which time the 221 had already left for Israel, according to local media reports.

"[The] government needs to come clear on what arrangement it has with Israel, what are the work conditions, security and well-being of the people and of what benefit is it to the nation," Chipofya said.

Authorities now say that up to 5,000 Malawians could go to Israel over the next few months. The Israeli ambassador told media outlets that the deal was a "win-win" for both countries.

"Malawi has built close links to Israel over the years, while other African countries have taken a harder line on Palestinian rights"

Grave concerns

At least 50 migrant workers died in Israel during the attacks by the Hamas on 7 October. That included 30 Thai nationals, four Filipinos, and 10 Nepalis, according to government and media reports.

There are reportedly more than 100,000 foreign workers in Israel, with the majority working as caregivers, as well as in agriculture and construction.

Malawi has built close links to Israel over the years, while other African countries have taken a harder line on Palestinian rights. Malawi agricultural school graduates have previously been sent to Israel.

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Soon after coming to office in 2021, President Lazarus Chakwera announced that Malawi would open an embassy in Jerusalem, becoming the first African nation in decades to do so in the contested city.

News outlet Malawi Voice identified the "mastermind" behind the deal as Nir Gess, the Honorary Consul of Malawi to Israel, who is reportedly a trusted friend of Chakwera. The outlet reported a $60 million donation from the Israeli government to Malawi in return for the labour deal agreement.

The Human Rights Defenders Coalition condemned the government's "secrecy" on the agreement, urging authorities to ensure the protection of the workers' rights in Israel. Gift Trapence, the HRDC chairman, urged the government to disclose details of the labour agreements with Israel and other countries.

William Kambwandira of the Centre for Social Accountability and Transparency also called for disclosure of the terms of the labour export arrangement.

Gaza destruction
Israel's brutal war on Gaza has left large swathes of the coastal enclave uninhabitable and killed over 17,000 Palestinians. [Getty]

'Evil transaction'

Malawian rights group Centre for Democracy and Economic Development Initiatives (CDEDI) condemned the deal, saying it was ill-timed given Tel Aviv's military campaign in the besieged Gaza Strip, demanding proof of assurance for the welfare of people during their stay in Israel.

"The labour export to Israel meets with the current war, raising concerns about the security and welfare of our people, since it is happening at a time when Malawians are still agonising over the government’s failure to rescue scores of our young women stuck in slavery in Oman following a similar attempt on labour export," said Sylvester Namiwa, a senior official at CDEDI, referring to reports that Malawi was struggling to repatriate 60 citizens who had been victims of sexual, physical and emotional abuse in Oman.

Malawi opposition leader Kondwani Nankhumwa slammed the deal in his parliamentary address as "an evil transaction".

"[The] government has gone into such an agreement with Israeli companies when it is fully aware that there is war. No sane parent can send his or her child to work in a country that is at war."

Sarah Khalil is a news editor and journalist at The New Arab