Histadrut Chairman Ofer Eini on Thursday threatened a fresh strike at the beginning of next month if the labor federation failed to reach an agreement with the Treasury over the issue of contract workers.
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“It must be made clear: We didn’t just adopt this issue as a cause célèbre. We think that to repair this country and make it more just, we need to reduce this phenomenon of contract workers. But if [negotiations] don’t succeed, we’ll demand the court allow us to strike again,” Eini said.
“We don’t want to get to such a situation... but that strike will be for the people.”
Eini made the threat at business daily Calcalist’s
annual pension savings conference in Tel Aviv, where he spoke immediately after Finance Minister Yuval Steinitz.
Earlier in the morning, the Histadrut requested that the National Labor Court give it and the Finance Ministry until the end of November to report on their negotiations. The court ordered the two sides to meet after allowing the Histadrut to hold a four-hour strike on November 7.
Eini said the talks revealed a “sad picture,” because although he has held hundreds of negotiations in his career, this is the first time the state has shown it knows nothing about the topic under discussion.
“The state doesn’t know how many contract workers there are and how many it employs,” he said.
He added that Treasury officials are only opposed to creating a better deal for contract workers because of financial interests. The difference between the average contract workers’ wage and the lowest wage earned by directly employed public service workers is NIS 3,500 a month, he said, meaning that “the state and the contractor benefit at the contract worker’s expense.”
Eini did concede one positive about Steinitz, who sat opposite him in the front row of the hall during his speech. “With all the differences in opinion between us... I can say one thing about him – he is decent and straight to the point.”
Steinitz said earlier that while there are still gaps between Eini and himself, intensive talks have led to some breakthroughs.
He added that he agreed with Steinitz that contract workers’ rights need to be improved.
“I think we have a problem. It’s good that the matter was raised, and [now] we are working on the diagnosis. Despite [recent] improvements in minimum wage and negative income tax, we still have the problem of service workers who are being exploited. This is intolerable,” Steinitz said. “An enlightened, advanced nation needs to take care of its weaker workers, to improve their situation and to safeguard all of their basic rights.”
Pointing to the 2010 Israeli Poverty Report, which was released later the same day, Steinitz said his government’s policies had helped bring about a reduction in poverty “for the first time in several years,” and would continue to aid underprivileged workers. He listed two main reasons for this reduction: the decrease in unemployment and the allocation of more money to the needy.
Steinitz acknowledged Eini, Labor Party leader Shelly Yacimovich and Kadima chairwoman Tzipi Livni – all of whom were present – at the beginning of his speech, referring to them as “friends” despite political differences.
But he couldn’t resist a jibe at absent Independence Party chairman and Defense Minister Ehud Barak, jokingly telling the audience that he would not discuss the Iranian issue or hypothesize about what he would do if he were Iranian.
Steinitz and Barak clashed earlier this week after the latter said the state should increase the budget deficit. Steinitz told Barak he should concentrate on his own portfolio, and called the defense minister’s economic ideas “nonsense.”
Yacimovich accused Steinitz in her speech of “pure hypocrisy,” saying, “the state is the biggest employer of contract workers in this country, even more than the private sector.”
Calling the employment of contract workers immoral, she said it allowed bosses to avoid the obligations associated with direct employment.
“[There is no need] to know him, to know who he is, to know his name, whether he has a kid, whether he’s sick, whether he’s dead. There is no need to even go to his funeral if he dies, because he’s not your employee, he’s employed by the contract company.”
Yacimovich said allowing such a situation to continue was also uneconomic, because it would create a huge mass of workers who continue to earn only NIS 22.04 per hour and therefore remain reliant on welfare.
Livni also directed most of her attention to Steinitz, saying the finance minister loves talking about how strongly the economy is performing, even when the facts point to the opposite.
“You can arrange the numbers, but you can’t fool the people,” she said. “The conversation should not be just about decreasing unemployment, but also about what happens to those same workers. The answer is that the state needs to determine what are the minimum rights for its citizens.”
Referring to this summer’s demonstrations over socioeconomic issues, Livni said: “This was not the protest of the unemployed. These are people who work, learn, serve in the army, and went to universities and colleges... They pay taxes and are ready to continue to pay taxes, but they must also know that everybody is shouldering the burden and not just them.”