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(photo credit: Ariel Jerozolimski)
Visiting Israel for the first time since Industry, Trade and Labor Minister Eli Yishai called for reforms to be made to the government-run Mehalev welfare-to-work pilot program, Roy Newey, group board director of A4e - a British-based multinational that operates the program in Jerusalem together with the Israeli company Amin - has told The Jerusalem Post that the changes are welcomed and much needed.
In an interview last week, Newey said he recognized the problems facing the program in Israel, unofficially known as the Wisconsin Program, and believed that Yishai's changes - which include tailoring the program to individuals' needs and removing the threat of welfare benefits being taken away - fitted in perfectly with a similar program that the company has been running in Britain since 1997.
"The concept of the Wisconsin Program is to get the unemployed off benefits," said Newey. "Even we are paid on the basis of how many people we get off benefits, whether they have a job or not."
He continued, "The program that we run in Britain called New Deal - which was implemented by [British Prime Minister] Tony Blair - ejects people into a job but does not necessary take away their benefits. Rather, it asks 'How can we help you get back to work?'"
Newey said that he has already met with Yishai and several of the minister's advisers to outline the basic differences between the US-developed Wisconsin Plan and the British-based New Deal. He said the minister seemed encouraged by A4e's suggestions for the controversial program, which began its pilot phase in Israel in August 2005.
In the first year of operation, Mehalev says it has helped roughly 8,000 people, who were previously receiving welfare and income support, to find permanent employment, while placing more than 10,000 people in temporary jobs. However, many individuals in the program in Jerusalem, Nazareth, Ashkelon-Sderot and Hadera have claimed that it does not take into consideration cultural differences such as those of Orthodox Jewish and Muslim women who have never been in the workforce, provide assistance for participants with young children and elderly parents or make provisions for mental and physical health issues.
Newey said that from the beginning, A4e disagreed with how the National Insurance Institute in Israel selected participants for the program.
"Some people chosen for the program were inappropriate," he stated. "While A4e believes that work is for everybody, that everybody should have a chance to contribute to society, for some people getting them into the workforce is a process that is further down the line."
He added that for many of the long-term unemployed, the threat of taking away their benefits is also highly problematic.
"Someone who has been in receipt of welfare for a long time is most certainly living below the poverty line and, for them, surviving is the name of the game," said Newey. "Then they are told that 'If you don't participate in the program your benefits will be taken away' and they feel extremely threatened."
He said that people arrived at the center so scared about losing their benefits that they really believed going back to work was impossible.
"We know that these people have many hurdles to overcome in order to return to or join the workforce," said Newey, highlighting the problems faced by a large proportion of devout Muslim women aged 55 and over who have never worked before. "The barriers they face are enormous."
"We won't give up on somebody though," he continued. "There needs to be flexibility and tailoring of the program to each person."
Newey said that as part of the UK program, A4e uses less threatening methods of coaxing individuals back into the workforce. For example, "If people fail to show up on time, we won't take away their benefits but we will go and buy them an alarm clock so that next time they will come on time."
Last month, Yishai noted that the Mehalev program had been operating in a "completely different" manner than was originally discussed. In June, Yishai appointed a committee to look into how the program was being operated by the four private companies, including A4e, in each locale.
Headed by Prof. Yossi Tamir, a Hebrew University expert on social work, the commission suggested that 20 percent to 25% of the Mehalev participants should to be redirected into personalized tracks requiring fewer hours of participation and work per week. There will be more leniency for those within seven years of retirement age, those with mental or physical disabilities and those with psychological and social problems. The chronically unemployed, who have been receiving income guarantee allowances for at least five of the past six years, and those enrolled in rehabilitation programs will be moved to special programs with professional attention. The program will also now include more leave days for those with sick or hospitalized relatives.
Industry, Trade and Labor Ministry director-general Gavriel Maimon said that the program's structure would eventually be changed so that companies would be paid per job placement achieved and not per welfare allowance canceled.