The workers’ union of the Foreign Ministry started an unprecedented strike this week, closing, for the first time ever, its embassies all around the world.
The results of the strike might frustrate a lot of people, especially Israelis overseas who depend on the responsiveness of their embassies. However, the ministry’s workers have strong arguments which deserve to be heard.
Strikes are not rare at all in Israel. Actually, out of all the countries in the Organization for Economic Cooperation and Development (OECD), Israel leads the way in the ratio of number of strike days per worker per year. For comparative purposes, in Israel over the past 10 years, every 1,000 workers were on strike an average of 512 cumulative days per year.
In Canada and Spain, the numbers were 181 and 180 cumulative days annually; the OECD average is a mere 71 days.
Israeli unions have unprecedented power, and it is easy to dismiss some strikes as unjustified and an abuse of their strength. Yet the Foreign Ministry strike includes a number of elements that make it an important issue to consider.
Low wages The wages in the public sector are, in general, incredibly low. A person who decides to work in this sector knows that he will be sacrificing some of his private welfare for the good of the country.
But there is a limit to how much we can expect talented individuals to sacrifice in order to serve their country.
The diplomats in the Foreign Ministry are some of the most talented people in Israel. The selection process to become a diplomat is grueling, and the training is incredibly intense. To successfully complete the whole process, one must have outstanding skills and qualities. This is the type of person that any company would quickly grab, at generous salaries.
So, how much do workers at the Foreign Ministry actually make? As part of attempts to pressure the Finance Ministry to give in to their demands, some Foreign Ministry workers made their salary public. For example, one diplomat with over 13 years of experience makes a mere NIS 6,842 per month. That is the equivalent of about $21,000 per year.
That’s not all. When living outside Israel during their postings, the workers do get a better salary. However, when it comes to pension, the government does not consider this salary as their actual earnings, but rather takes another, arbitrary and much lower salary as reference.
This means that when retiring, diplomats cannot even expect to live according to the lifestyle to which they have become accustomed, like everyone else does.
The low salary and tough conditions mean that Israel’s diplomatic corps is having increasing difficulty getting young diplomats to stay in the ministry, and to recruit talented new young recruits. This becomes a direct strategic threat to Israel.
Family sacrifices One cannot think of the job of a diplomat without thinking of the effects of the job on his family.
International law dictates that spouses of diplomats are not allowed to work in the country in which their spouses are stationed. This rule comes from an outdated view of the world, where the diplomat was usually male and his wife was expected to be the “host” of the diplomatic home – a sort of first lady.
The only way to get around this rule is through bilateral agreements between countries that agree not to apply this rule to each other. Israel did sign many of these bilateral agreements, but many spouses of diplomats are left without jobs for years, as they sacrifice their own careers for that of their spouses.
When working in the Foreign Ministry, I advised on the negotiations for such an agreement. The person pushing the agreement was a diplomat stationed in a certain country, and told me she was returning to Israel quite soon. I asked her: If so, why is it so important for you to get this agreement signed? She explained that her husband had spent the last few years unemployed, or doing some small jobs in the embassy for which he was overqualified. Seeing her husband go through this motivated her to ensure the next person would not go through the same experience.
Of course, even with the existence of such an agreement, the sacrifice of the spouse is still very significant. A spouse of a diplomat cannot expect to work in the same job his whole life, since he knows he will have to leave for a few years to follow the husband or wife. This means he is unable to move through the hierarchy of the organization which he is a part of. It also means it might be harder for him to find a job, when employers see the number of times he has changed jobs.
When examining the salaries and work conditions of diplomats, one cannot only look at the diplomat himself, but must look at the family as a whole unit. This perspective makes the demands of the workers at the Foreign Ministry even more convincing.
Big or small government When regarding the root of the problem, one quickly comes to the conclusion that the Israeli government simply does not have enough money for everything it does. The reason for that is simple: it does too many things.
The problem with big government is not only its size, but also its eating up of resources. Not only does it eat up the money that should be left with taxpayers, it also eats up the money that is already taken through taxes but should be used for other purposes.
As such, in big governments, doctors and teachers are underpaid, diplomats are underpaid and most public workers are also underpaid.
Everyone agrees that the job of a diplomat should exist, even in the smallest of governments. However, the spending on things which could be privatized hurts the salary of the diplomats.
Instead of spending money on things which the private sector can do very well, the government should privatize them and use the money to do the things it does well.
Instead of paying thousands of workers who are less effective, government should cut its workforce drastically and use the money saved to properly compensate talented people for their work.
Only then will talented people continue to join the government force. Yes, this does mean sacrificing the job security that government gives to its workers to allow for more efficiency in the hiring/firing process. But if people were properly compensated, they would not look for job security – since their salary would be reason enough to join the public sector.
In an ideal world, government jobs should be prestigious jobs that talented people fight over. They should not be jobs that people take when giving up a promising career; these very jobs should be the promising career.
If this is true of all public workers, it is especially true of diplomats – who sacrifice so much comfort for their jobs, running around the world to defend Israel’s interests in an effective way.
It is in Israel’s best interest to hear the complaints of the workers of the Foreign Ministry, and to work towards making the job of the diplomat the prestigious job it should be.
■ The writer is an attorney who graduated from McGill University Law School and Hebrew University’s honors graduate program in public policy. He is currently working as a research fellow at the Kohelet Policy Forum.