WAC Maan letter to OECD Trade Union Advisory Committee

WAC Maan calls on OECD not to accept Israel as a member as long as it does not respect basic labour rights

Assaf Adiv, WAC
National Coordinator
WAC Ma’an
Nazareth Israel
Office: ?4-6020680
Mobil: ?50-4330034
E mail: assafa[at]maan.org.il
 Web site: www.wac-maan.org.il

Dear friends

Following is a letter sent recently to the Secretary General of the OECD Trade Union Advisory Committee John Evans

www.wac-maan.org.il/en/article__140

WAC Maan to the Trade Union Advisory Committee to the OECD (TUAC)- Israel should not be allowed to become a member of the OECD without a clear proof that it had stopped the policy of discrimination and exploitation of Arab, Jewish and migrant workers

TUAC Secretariat Report to the OECD

To John Evans, General Secretary, Trade Union Advisory Committee to the OECD (TUAC)

From WAC-MAAN, an independent trade union and counselling center that organizes and defends the neglected sectors of the working population in Israel.

We are writing to ask for your intervention concerning Israel’s efforts to join the OECD. Last week the OECD Secretary-General, Mr. Angel Gurria, visited here and discussed with Israeli officials the prospect of this country’s admission to the OECD, possibly, he said, in six months. The decision is conditioned on the implementation of several reforms in the labor market, but it is feared that Israel will present mere token steps as a sign of readiness to meet the conditions. If the OECD accepts such steps as sufficient, an opportunity will be lost for dealing seriously with the issues, and Israel will be rewarded without real change on her part.

The detailed OECD report of November 12, 2009, prepared with the help of TUAC under your leadership, made it clear that the current socioeconomic situation here is unacceptable. It points to the need for drastic change in social and economic policies, if the standards of OECD countries are to be met. We find the following passage to be especially pertinent:

“Israel has enjoyed strong economic growth over the last decade, but the benefits of this are being distributed unevenly. Poverty rates are higher than in any OECD country, which reflects the deep social and economic divides in Israeli society. On one side, there is the general Jewish population with poverty and employment rates similar to those of OECD countries. On the other, there are Arabs and ultra-Orthodox Jews, or Haredim, who have large families, poor educational outcomes and low employment rates. As a result, just over half of Arab and Haredi families live in poverty. Almost half of all children entering primary school in Israel come from one of these two groups, so profound policy changes are needed to prevent future generations of Arabs and Haredim from being scarred by the disadvantages these population groups face today.“ See here

WAC-MAAN sees the report as a constructive step. We hope that the criticism levelled at the Israeli Government will facilitate a new policy direction concerning these issues, which have been left untended too long. We urge you to demand that Israel make the necessary changes before acceptance to the OECD. On the basis of past experience, we believe that if it is prematurely accepted, no further efforts will follow, and the hopes for improvement will be foiled. In order to make the issues clearer, we would like to present examples in three different branches of the economy. All are areas where we at WAC-MAAN are actively seeking to change the situation by organizing workers. In all three, we confront government double talk: the authorities commit to do the right thing but instead do precisely the opposite. The policy is one of disregard for international labor conventions and total support for the business elite. This support comes at the expense of the working population: Arabs, new immigrants, and migrants.

A. The transport branch: truck drivers work in inhuman and dangerous conditions.

Some 30, 000 trucks (above 4 tons) transport 95% of the commodities in Israel. Israel’s economy depends on a group of 30, 000 truckers employed by 470 private companies.

In Israel’s first years, trucking companies were based on cooperatives in which the drivers held stocks. During the last two decades, these companies have undergone rapid privatization, resulting in the almost total destruction of the safety arrangements and social conditions that protected the truckers.

As a result, more than 90% of today’s drivers are employed at unreasonably low wages and without a pension fund or other insurance. Further, the standard (No. 168) for the number of work hours makes it possible to keep drivers on the job 12 hours per day and 68 hours per week—in stark contrast with the European standard, which sets the weekly limit at 48 hours on the long-term average. see the European directive of March 11, 2002 on the organization of working time for persons performing mobile road transport activities:

source

Israel has committed itself, in an agreement with the EU, to work toward bringing its standard closer to the European one. source See this agreement (date not specified, but after 2004)

Where the transport branch is concerned, this would mean a decrease in the number of daily hours from 12 to 9 and in weekly hours from 68 to 48. In fact, however, there is not the slightest hint of a start toward fulfilling this commitment. On the contrary, the leading companies constantly strive, supported by the Transport Minister (formerly Shaul Mofaz of Kadima and now Yisrael Katz of Likud) to extend the number of permitted hours to 15 per day. This change has been warded off, for now, by the determined opposition of workers’ unions, including WAC-MAAN, and an appeal by the Histadrut. There is still concern, however, that the government might push it through.

Starting in the last months of 2009, WAC-MAAN has begun organizing the 90% of the truckers who have no union representation. We have gathered hundreds of testimonies. All the drivers we’ve talked to voice the pain and frustration of lacking an organization to speak for them. There is a consensus among them that the root of the problem is an arrangement that allows them to be paid on the basis of deliveries, rather than on the basis of hours worked. This situation encourages the Transport Companies to lobby for lengthening the work day, attending neither to the exploitation nor to the danger created for everyone on the road. In more than one company, the drivers’ attempts to form a Workers Committee were met by threats, layoffs of activists and an atmosphere of terror. The transport industry is a central pillar of the developed Israeli economy, but the truckers are treated as if they were working in the third world, without labor law or safety regulations. This situation reflects the nature of the labor market in Israel, not just on the periphery, but also in a central branch like transport.

B. Subcontractors in the Public Service: The case of IAA/Brik

For over a year now, WAC-MAAN has been engaged in a struggle for workers employed in the projects of the Israel Antiquities Authority (IAA) through a Personnel Agency named Brik. See many news items in WAC’s website such as this from the Hebrew daily Yediot Aharonot: .

source

The struggle began with 21 workers from East Jerusalem. In January 2009 they received, orally, notice that everyone who had worked for more than 9 months would be laid off. This, we found, has been Brik’s standard practice since 2008, when the Knesset amended the Law on Manpower Employees A12, stipulating that such workers, after 9 months, must be hired directly by the employer and no longer by the manpower firm. It is doubtful whether Brik’s practice of recurrent dismissal was done without the knowledge of the IAA. In a petition to the courts, WAC-MAAN accused both the IAA and Brik.

We pointed out in court that Brik employs people without social benefits. Brik’s manager admitted in his testimony that the company deducts NIS 20 from the workers’ salaries as a membership fee to the Histadrut, although the funds are never transferred to the latter. According to testimonies by Jewish and Arab workers from other parts of the country, similar patterns of exploitation and recurrent dismissal are a commonplace. One archaeological worker noted that he was fired and reinstated five times. In September 2008 he was one of many fired on the pretext of lack of work, although just a few days later new workers were hired. After some months he was reinstated. WAC-MAAN has demanded that the IAA respect the law and hire manpower employees directly after 9 months. What makes this a test case is the fact that the IAA is a public, state-funded authority with a cultural and scientific mission, and so it is obliged to ensure that its employees receive their legal rights.

C. The agricultural sector: migrants and Arab women pay the price

A major issue in the report of the OECD is Israel’s policy toward migrant workers. For 10 years now, successive governments have made commitments to stop the importation of workers from Thailand. The decisions have never been implemented, thanks to a powerful lobby of personnel companies that reap huge profits from the traffic. See numerous reports in the Israeli press like this one, which concerns a government plan from 2007 that acknowledges the facts but was never implemented:

source

On the books Israeli labor law makes decent provision for all workers, but it is poorly implemented. The majority of Thai migrants work extremely long hours in agricultural for much less than the legal minimum wage. Often they live in squalid conditions. The work can be dangerous. As non-citizens they are vulnerable to dismissal and deportation if they request their rights. In addition, Thai workers often owe large debts to Thai loan sharks because, as a condition for working here, they are required to pay thousands of dollars in illegal brokerage fees to Israeli manpower agencies. The agencies attempt to maintain a monopoly on the supply of Thai labor, at the expense of workers’ market mobility and bargaining power.

On occasion the Israeli government, as well as retail chains, makes inspections to see whether employers are upholding the law and labor commitments. But these inspections are inadequate. Inspectors interview employers, not workers, in order to establish whether laws are being upheld. False pay slips are produced that do not represent the true hours worked, and no interpreters escort inspectors onto sites, where the workers, in any case, are scared to speak out. The system amounts to one of bonded labor: a migrant is considered illegal as soon as he leaves the employer, even if the latter is not paying salary or violates his rights. Recently, the government began a policy of brutally deporting such “illegal“ migrants. Even those married to Israelis are not permitted to stay. This policy was touted as a step to open jobs for Israelis, but in reality, the importations continue, as in a revolving door. See this discussion on workers in the Israeli labor market, including reports on both migrant and Arab workers:

source

With one hand the government imports weak workers,“fresh prey,“ while with the other it deports those who have gone illegal. Instead of opening jobs, it opens new sources of illegal wealth for the manpower firms.

Palestinian Arab workers in Israel are at a competitive disadvantage because of the cheap labor that Thai workers are easily compelled to provide. Arabs with families cannot afford to work for the low wages that Thais accept or to stay on the job for 12 or more hours a day. Employers therefore prefer to hire Thais. In particular, women from Arab families have experienced a severe diminution in agricultural jobs. This has serious economic consequences. Only 19% of Arab women in Israel are employed outside the home, as compared to 56% of Jewish women.

These three examples show the unsatisfactory level of Israeli government policy concerning the employment of local and migrant workers.

This, however, is just the tip of the iceberg. The labor market in Israel today is characterized by a total disregard for workers social rights, workers safety, and it is pushing greater numbers of workers to work for poverty wages.

We showed how truck drivers are pressured to work without regards to the limit of 12 hours on the road. By doing this they are breaking safety regulations, and putting themselves and the public at risk. We showed how the state institutions like the Antiquities Authority break the law while hiding behind Personnel Companies. We also showed how the state allows the flow of unnecessary migrant workers and pushing down the salary scale of large segments in the Israeli labor market.

It is imperative that while the OECD is engaged in an overall examination of the Israeli system, including its labor policies, the standards, set by the conventions of the ILO and the remarks that were included in the report of the TUAC, will not be overlooked. If the entrance of Israel to the OECD will be accompanied by serious reform that will benefit all workers – Palestinian, Israeli and migrants, included – this will be good news for the people in this country. If on the contrary, the OECD will accept Israel as a member in this prestigious club with only lip service to the need of making crucial reforms, this would be a grave mistake.

We repeat our appeal to the TUAC: please ask the OECD to withhold acceptance of Israel until the reforms are really implemented.

In solidarity

Assaf Adiv – National Director WAC-Maan
Roni Ben Efrat – international relations WAC-Maan

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