Industry, Trade and Labor Minister Eli Yishai told a group of anxious industrialists and representatives of small businesses on Monday that he has prepared a bill calling on the government to compensate employers for loss of income caused by the war against Hizbullah.
Yishai was speaking to a large group of employers in the guest room at Klil Industries in the industrial zone of Karmiel. It was his second trip to the North since the fighting began two weeks ago.
Last week, Yishai initiated a bill to prevent employers from firing workers who have not shown up for work because of the security situation. The bill was approved by the cabinet and is due to be put to a vote in the Knesset.
On Monday, he revealed that he had another bill which he planned to present soon.
But the employers told Yishai they were disappointed with the government because it had allegedly failed to deal with too many economic aspects of the current crisis and had left them in the dark about its intentions and what is expected of them.
Karmiel is located in the second tier of communities in the danger zone.
According to the IDF Home Front, civilians in the first tier, along the northern border, have been ordered to stay at home and in their safe rooms and bomb shelters. Those in the second tier have only been instructed to stay within easy reach of shelter. The army allows those employed in factories and offices with safety areas to go to work. However, they still face the prospect of getting from home to work and, currently, the government takes no responsibility for their safety. Therefore, in addition to those whose workplaces lack the proper facilities, other workers refuse to take the chances involved in getting to work.
The employers wanted to know who - if anyone - would pay the salaries of those who do not show up. They also wanted to know whether they would be compensated for the losses in production and income.
"We feel disappointed," said Arie Richtman, the CEO of Klil. "There is no one to talk to."
An executive of the Zoglowek meat company said only 320 of the company's 1,500 employees are working because the factories in Shlomi and Nahariya are unsafe. "The 320 employees who are working will receive salaries and bonuses," said the executive. "But what will happen to the other 1,200?"
The situation of the smaller businessmen in the north is even more severe. Most of them have closed shop because their employees refuse to work and because no one is out shopping these days except for the bare necessities.
Yossi Ben-Shoshan, who heads the Association of Small Businesses in the North, warned that many businesses would soon close down for good because they did not have the reserves of the bigger companies. He demanded that the government and local authorities pay them immediately for goods and services provided during the past two weeks and also called on the government to pay the tax rebates which they owe the businesses.
Yigal Gur-Arie, the CEO of the Chaban Group, employs 35 workers at his ultra-modern plant in Karmiel. Only half of them have been coming to work since the fighting began.
Gur-Arie does not appear to be overly perturbed. He says it is too early to know whether his factory has sustained economic losses. The factory produces automatic test equipment for missiles and other complex electronic systems, and medical equipment, and sells its machinery both here and abroad.
Despite the crisis, Gur-Arie managed to fill an emergency order for Rafael, the weapons research company. "We worked long hours with half the manpower to meet the deadline," he told The Jerusalem Post.
Gur-Arie said he was certain his workers would be better off coming to work than staying at home, where some of them do not even have safe areas. But, he says, he has not made any demands. "I don't tell anyone to come back," he said. "I ask them." He also intends to pay all of his employees, but will deduct vacation days from those who have stayed home.
Gur-Arie is not overly worried about the coming weeks. Even though he believes the fighting might last that long, he believes his absent workers will soon come back to work of their own volition.
This confidence is not shared by David Danino, the owner of the Shaked Bakery in Karmiel which until two weeks ago employed about 25 workers.
None of them have shown up for work for the past 10 days and not only does Danino not have any income, he still has to pay rent, suppliers and creditors.
The factory has a safety area. "I tried to persuade my employees to come back to work, but I don't really want to. I don't want to bear that responsibility. But if things go on like this much longer, I will face a catastrophe." Since opening his factory last year, Danino has been waiting for the Ministry of Industry, Trade and Labor to grant it the status of a "licensed enterprise." This would enable him to receive more bank credit and a government subsidy of 24 percent of his investment.
Asked why he did tell Yishai about his year-long struggle with government red tape during Monday's meeting, Danino said, "I'm tired of asking."
Gur-Arie said the reason the government was not willing to publicly declare that it would grant compensation to employers and workers was because of its insistence on not exceeding the budget goal. He said he tried to set up an appointment with Treasury officials but was told they were too busy to meet him because they were busy preparing the first draft of the 2007 budget.
However, even Yishai admitted to the employers that the government has millions of dollars in its current budget reserve which could be used to help them. He promised to try to persuade the finance minister to release some of it.