When I listen to our leaders speak about their intended â€œWar on Poverty,â€ I find myself wondering: where did poverty come from? Did poverty infiltrate through a gap in the security fence, stealing its way into our cities? Was poverty carried in by migrating fowl, like the avian flu? Or did poverty erupt from underneath us like the foretold earthquake, which everyone knows will come, but no one knows precisely when?
The â€œWar on Povertyâ€ talk is meant to make you think along those very lines. Poverty is portrayed as a sort of terror, or illness, or natural disaster. This rhetoric is meant to make us forget that poverty, like fire, does not just happen; it is caused.
Israelâ€™s widespread poverty has been consistently and persistently generated for over 20 years by the very leaders who now declare a â€œwarâ€ upon it. And while they declare this â€œwarâ€ they keep on creating more and more poverty.
Poverty is growing fast among two main groups: the elderly and low-income workers. This fact is a direct result of Israelâ€™s labor and social policies. While trade unions have become increasingly weak, governments have neglected their role of protecting worker rights, and generated a situation, where more and more people depend on income support. Short-sighted â€œfree marketâ€ ideology, which serves corporations and their rich leaders, has been driving more and more people below the poverty line. Here are a few examples for such policies.
Weâ€™ve been informed recently that one in four senior citizens in Israel is poor. But the really bad news is that this rate will increase steadily and fast. The rate of workers without a pension plan is now just under one in two. Laws which guarantee pension coverage to workers in various work sectors (such as security and cleaning) are ignored by employers and not enforced by authorities. A government-sponsored bill for mandatory pensions for all workers is still where it has been for the last 10 years being processed. Those workers who do not have a pension plan today are on their way to becoming statistics in future reports on poor senior citizens. We, who fail to act now, will either be poor senior citizens, or have to cover senior citizensâ€™ income support with our tax money.
HEREâ€™S ANOTHER way in which the government directly produces poverty. Government tenders, it is now well known, often accept bids which are clearly too cheap to cover minimum wages for the workers to be employed. Furthermore, the state does not have any reservations when it comes to accepting bids from known and convicted labor law violators. The bidders can get away with it, because enforcement is almost nonexistent.
This could be solved by legislation and regulation barring labor law violators and low bidders from public tenders. Such legislation and regulation, however, is stalled by the government. The result is that people employed in government-funded projects form the rising class of the working poor. The government prefers a cheaper deal, even when it means increasing poverty, and paying for it in income support and widespread poverty.
The same logic operates in the private sector as well. Outsourcing, economists explain, is cheaper, because it allows for more efficient production. This may be true in some cases. But in todayâ€™s Israel outsourcing and subcontracting are often cheaper because they violate labor law. A well-known large company (such as Bank Leumi or Tnuva) would jeopardize its prestige were it to violate labor law. But their subcontractors (which supply tellers and menial workers) may be names youâ€™ve never heard of. Subcontractors donâ€™t mind violating labor law, and are indifferent to dragging the few workers who dare to complain through the courts; at the same time, service commissioners hold on to their spotless images. The result is, again, more working poor.
ON NOVEMBER 16 the Knesset will vote on MK Igal Yasinovâ€™s bill, which would allow subcontracted workers to demand (under certain circumstances) salary restitution from service commissioners, rather than just from subcontractors. Bank Leumi, for example, would become directly liable if ORS fails to pay minimum wages to Leumi tellers. Since state enforcement is practically nonexistent, this could be a life-line for underpaid workers.
Unfortunately, the coalition has already announced that it will object to the bill. The message is clear: a dynamic labor market (a.k.a. more profit for corporations and their rich leaders) is more important than protecting workers from poverty.
Voting against Yasinovâ€™s bill is nothing short of supporting the continued production of poverty. This vote is therefore the first test for any MK who is genuinely committed to the â€œWar on Poverty.â€
The writer is a board member for worker rights NGO Kav LaOved Workerâ€™s Hotline.