A dozen employees of the Modi’in Ezrahi company that provides private guards in east Jerusalem protested outside the company’s office in downtown Jerusalem on Monday, over what they said were unfair working conditions and withheld wages.

The company won the Housing Ministry’s tender to provide guard services to Jewish families living in majority Arab neighborhoods, such as the Old City, Silwan and Ras al-Amud. Modi’in Ezrahi guards also work at many of the checkpoints and crossings between the West Bank and Jerusalem.

Guards in east Jerusalem created a worker’s union over a year ago with the help of Koach La Ovdim – Democratic Workers’ Association, to press for improved conditions such as water and bathrooms at all guard stations, five shifts per week, shuttles to and from work during Shabbat and fair wages, including pensions.

There are 360 guards working in east Jerusalem, and 170 joined the union, according to Matan Boord, an organizer with Koach La Ovdim. Modi’in Ezrahi, a notoriously secretive organization whose name means “Civilian Intelligence,” is thought to have more than 10,000 employees – although the company refused to reveal those numbers.

“We’re there so the state doesn’t have to take responsibility,” said Noam Petrusenko, a guard at the City of David who has worked with Modi’in Ezrahi for seven years. “If something happens, heaven forbid, it’s a company that takes the fall and not the state.”

The positions are usually filled by former combat soldiers who are completing degrees and need a job with flexible hours that fits with their class schedule. It is a relatively high-paying job for students, with most guards making around NIS 35 per hour. According to pay stubs provided by the company, some guards make upward of NIS 11,000 per month. The armed guards do similar work to soldiers and conduct regular patrols of the neighborhood, and sometimes escort children to school in the Old City.

Petrusenko said Modi’in Ezrahi frequently withholds wages and cheats guards out of overtime. He said most employees keep track of their withheld wages during their tenure and when they quit, they sue the company in labor court to get the wages back.

Petrusenko added that in every case he knew, the labor court always sided with the former employees and required the company to pay back wages.

Modi’in Ezrahi spokesman Eliran Bareket accused Koach La Ovdim of manipulating the guards and engaging in a “territorial war” with the Histadrut labor federation. He added that the company’s administration met monthly with guards and that negotiations to improve conditions are ongoing.

He slammed the guards for bringing their issues to the public sphere, while the guards countered that negotiations had stalled. “We’re willing to work with them, but not this way,” said Bareket. The spokesman also provided screenshots of some of the central organizers’ Facebook profiles, where they compared the company to Hitler.

On Monday, a dozen guards associated with the union demonstrated on Jaffa Road outside of the Modi’in Ezrahi Jerusalem office. They chanted “No profit, no guards!” and “If you don’t want Molotov cocktails, you need to give us services!” The company did not provide them with proper defense equipment despite requiring them to patrol in dangerous areas, until their “costumes” were replaced by real bulletproof vests a few months ago, Petrusenko said.

“We work in cooperation with Yassam [the police’s anti-riot unit] a lot, and they have the proper equipment and they know what they’re there for,” he said. “For us, only with God’s help do we get out alive.”

Left-wing organizations such as the Association for Civil Rights in Israel oppose the use of private guards in east Jerusalem because the company is not held accountable in the same way soldiers can be held accountable.

In September 2010, a Modi’in Ezrahi guard in Silwan shot and killed an Arab resident, Samr Sirkhan, after his patrol jeep was surrounded by people throwing rocks.

The guard was questioned for a few hours and released.

Sirkhan’s death touched off the most intense period of unrest in east Jerusalem in the past few years. Dozens were arrested and more than ten people were injured in the rioting.

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