Bezeq union declares labor dispute

Workers worried by reform to give competitors tunnel access

December 11, 2016 19:36
3 minute read.
network cables connected to routers

Network cables connected to routers (illustrative). (photo credit: INGIMAGE)

The Bezeq workers union announced a labor dispute with the company on Sunday, and threatened to hinder Knesset’s communications market reforms “by all means.”

The announcement came as a response to a proposed clause in the communications reform bill that would open the Bezeq infrastructure to competitors in order to lower costs for consumers. The union can begin a strike 14 days after declaring a dispute.

“The government decided to pass a communications reform that states that Bezeq’s competitors can run their cables and maintain them through Bezeq’s existing infrastructure. This means that the work inside the infrastructure and facilities that until now was exclusive to Bezeq employees will be handed over to the hands of the competitors,” union chairman Shlomo Kfir told The Jerusalem Post.

The Knesset Economic Affairs Committee will convene on Monday to discuss and shape the communications market reform bill. The legislation has yet to go through a first-reading in the committee.

The overall goal of the reform is to increase competition within the telecommunications market, thereby increasing efficiency and decreasing costs to consumers.

The clause of the reform under dispute would require Bezeq to grant other telecommunication service providers – such as Cellcom, Partner and Hot – access to its nationwide underground network of fiber optic cables, so that these companies can deploy their cables through the existing network. This move is designed to prevent Bezeq’s competitors from incurring vast expenses to dig new tunnels all over the country, a process which would also cause a public nuisance.

According to Kfir, the 6,500 Bezeq workers who declared this dispute are all the employees whose jobs are directly related to the maintenance and development of the company’s subterranean fiber optic grid. The workers claim that the other companies will use outside contractors for the maintenance works and thus will hurt their careers.

“This will make the workers redundant and might even convince Bezeq’s management to employ contract workers instead, once they see that the competitors do it,” said Kfir.

However, the clause otherwise makes no changes to the employment structures in the telecommunications companies involved, nor does it grant Bezeq’s competitors the right to do work on Bezeq’s cables without consent. Therefore, it is unclear why the union decided the legislation will damage Bezeq’s workers who are under a collective labor agreement.

“The clause in the bill literally states only that competitors can run their own cables through Bezeq’s existing grid and maintain their own cables. As part of this reform Bezeq will be paid for every kilometer of cable running through its tunnels. Additionally, Bezeq’s main competitor, Hot, will be barred from taking part in this for nine months,” a source familiar with the bill told the Post. “The director-general of the Communications Ministry repeatedly stated that the existing work conditions and labor arrangements will remain as they are.”

According to the source, the labor dispute could be a measure by Bezeq workers intended to stymie a reform that would weaken the company’s market dominance.

Bezeq had a monopoly on landline telecommunication and Internet access infrastructures until 2005, when Hot entered the market with cable-based infrastructures for those services. As a former monopoly, Bezeq is still the country’s largest telecommunications group and it still controls all of the fiber optic cable infrastructure in the country.

“You want to let other companies use the Bezeq infrastructure? Sure, go ahead, but don’t let the competitors’ workers do the maintenance work, keep that in our hands. Otherwise we will fight against this clause and against the reform and not allow it to be passed in any way, shape or form, we will use any means necessary,” Kfir told the Post.

Kfir did not specify if the workers will go on a strike and cease routine and special maintenance work.

Bezeq management did not provide a comment on the labor dispute or on the proposed reform.

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