Fair and Equal

Opposition to raising the mandatory retirement age for women to equal that of men’s points to increasing gender awareness in Israeli society

By EETTA PRINCE-GIBSON
September 14, 2011 18:48
Monajat

silhouette of woman. (photo credit: Courtesy)

 
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FEMINISTS AND SOCIAL change organizations have mounted a campaign against Finance Minister Yuval Steinitz’s decision to raise the mandatory retirement age for women so that it will be the same as it is for men.

Under a law passed in 2004, women, but not men, may retire at age 62; if they wish, they may continue to work until age 67, when retirement is mandatory for both sexes.

That same legislation mandated the establishment of a public committee to examine the implications for the national budget and for women of raising the retirement age.

But the finance ministers did not establish any such committee until early 2011, when Steinitz established the “Nissan Committee,” a multidisciplinary special committee, headed by the ministry’s budget director, Udi Nissan. The committee, which handed in its proposals in late June 2011, recommended that the mandatory retirement age for women be raised to 64 by 2017 and 67 in 2026.

Since, according to that same legislation, the finance minister is permitted to raise the age to 64 without further debate or approval if the committee recommends it, Steinitz moved quickly, attempting to keep his decision under the public radar. But little in the Knesset remains under the radar for very long, and the decision rapidly came to the attention of several feminist-minded MKs, who shared the information with women’s organizations.

The “Coalition of Organizations Against Raising Women’s Retirement Age in Israel,” a hastily-formed ad hoc umbrella group of women’s and social rights groups, mounted a sophisticated public campaign of lobbying, letter writing, and savvy, intensive use of the media against Steinitz’s decision.

Also acting quickly, MKs presented a series of bills to the Knesset to stymie Steinitz’s intention, which passed in their first meetings by a cross-party majority of 67 to 1 (Steinitz being the one). Following standard Knesset procedure, the bills have been referred to committees for fine-tuning and integration and are expected to be brought for second and third, final, readings when the Knesset reconvenes in the fall.



“Steinitz and the government don’t seem to understand that Israel has changed,” fumes Dorit Abramovitch, the feminist campaigner who coordinated the efforts. Referring to the wave of social protests in Israel, she continues, “The public will no longer allow the government to make decisions that affect our lives without even informing us about them.

That’s not democracy and the public will not tolerate this any longer.”

Yet despite the extensive public and political opposition, Steinitz still does have the option of unilaterally deciding to fix the retirement age for women at 64. Steinitz’s media advisor Sharona Mazlian-Levi informs The Report that the minister has “yet to make a final decision on this matter,” but declined to provide more information.

THE CAMPAIGN AGAINST THE equal age requirement indicates that feminists have clearly progressed beyond anachronistic demands for formal and numerical equality to more nuanced understandings that sameness in the context of inequality is substantively unfair.

The Nissan Committee’s recommendations for raising the retirement age are predicated on the argument that this will increase women’s participation in the workforce and thus broaden the tax base from which the National Insurance Institute (NII) draws its pension and other payments. The more years women participate in the workforce, the argument goes, the larger their monthly payments will be and the more money that will accrue to the NII, since it will not be forced to supplement low-level pensions with income maintenance payments. Women, they argue, can only benefit from this.

And indeed, while 72 percent of men aged 55-64 participate in the workforce, only 53 percent of women in that age group do, according to data for 2009 provided by the Central Bureau of Statistics.

But binding women to the labor force by law, insists Barbara Swirski, executive director of Adva, a Tel Aviv-based social-economic think tank, will only make them poorer. The reasons that women are not participating in the work force, she contends, are related to “Israel’s highly discriminatory labor market,” in which women face the twin problems of ageism and sexism.

“The reason so many older women aren’t working isn’t because they don’t want to,” she says. “It’s because older women are the first to be fired and the last to be hired.”

In fact, according to data provided by the Mahut Center – the Forum for the Promotion of a Multi-Age workforce, nearly half of the Israeli women in the 45-64 age bracket are in a state of “deep unemployment” (meaning they have been unemployed for more than 270 days). Less than one-fourth of men are in the same situation.

Thus, raising the retirement age puts women in a particularly precarious position.

Explains Abramovitch, “If a woman is fired at the age of 60, or even 55, she has almost no chance of finding another job. At least under the current situation, she ‘only’ has to wait until she is 62 to become entitled to her pension.

In reality, raising the age of retirement doesn’t mean more years of paying into the system – it means long years of poverty. And when the woman is finally entitled to receive that pension, it will never be enough to pull her out of the debt and despair that she will have accumulated.”

Furthermore, Abramovitch notes, in Israel’s traditionally-oriented society, women are expected to devote more time to housework and child-rearing. They thus have less opportunity to advance their careers. “And so they wind up working in physically challenging work, like cleaning and child care, where they make minimum wage or less. Forcing them to work additional years would not only be unfair – it would be cruel.”

She continues, “Of course, men suffer from ageism, too. But they don’t suffer from sexism, and it is the combination of the two that makes the situation for women even more difficult. We need programs to correct the inequities of the labor market and address the needs of both men and women, including sanctions against ageism and incentives for hiring and keeping older workers. But until the government institutes such policies, numerical equality is an abusive tactic.

Steinitz and the Treasury are just trying to cynically increase the government’s coffers on the backs of women.

“Equality is supposed to be an end-result; it’s not a means to reaching other goals, such as trying to balance the budget,” she states.

Agrees Swirski, “Raising women’s retirement age without correcting the faults in the system, including making it easier for women to enter, remain, and advance within the labor force, merely make things worse for women. Instead of legislating formal equality, the government should view the lower retirement age as a form of equalization or compensation for the discriminatory situation in the workplace.”

MIRIAM COHEN, A CHECKout clerk at a branch of a large supermarket chain in Jerusalem, says she is “counting the days” until she can retire.

“I’m 59 now, and I can’t afford to retire early, because I’ll have no income. I’m paid by the hour and I only make minimum wage, and it’s really not enough to live on.

But I have no choice.”

Short and diminutive, with dark grey hair covered by a nondescript, faded kerchief, Cohen talks with The Report during a mandatory 15-minute break from her shift, which is automatically deducted from her salary. She looks around, almost furtively, as if to see if anyone is listening to her conversation, although she is standing outside in the parking lot. She drags heavily on her cigarette and sips the coffee in a mug that she has brought from home. The supermarket does not supply coffee or snacks for its workers.

Cohen says she knows that she probably wouldn’t be affected by a change in the law, but “just the idea frightens” her. “I only finished 11 years of school, and then I got married and then the children came. I hate my job, I hate earning minimum wage, and yet I’m thankful every day that I have a job. If I get fired, I’ll never get another job. Who will hire me at my age? I raised my three children and I only went to work when they were older. But then I had breast cancer and was sick for quite a few years. I’m fine now, and I don’t get any disability benefits.

“I work shifts and nights; before Shabbat, I work until really late so I can get a bit more money. It’s hard work – customers are often angry if I don’t work fast enough or don’t lift heavy things, like six packs of bottled water, quickly enough.

And management is constantly watching me, to see if I slow down or I make a mistake, because then they’ll fire me and hire someone younger.

“It’s hard work,” she continues. “There are computer lists and bar codes and things that didn’t exist when I went to high school. I’ve never had a chance to study.”

She concludes, “I really do think about my 62nd birthday. I’ll retire. I’ll celebrate with my husband. He’s a janitor, but he’s older than I and will also retire in three years. And then we’ll spend our old age together, quietly. We won’t have much money, but at least we will have some time.”

OFFICIALS IN FAVOR OF RAISing the retirement age openly acknowledge that the stability of pension funds and the future of social welfare are also significant factors.

NII director Esther Dominissini tells The Report, “With longer life expectancy rates, especially for women, we must create additional resources to support and provide pensions for these longer life spans. The reserves of the NII are shrinking and it will become increasingly difficult to pay benefits.

We already face a deficit of some 2 billion shekels, based on actuarial tables.”

Retorts Abramovitch, “That is the kind of macro-economic thinking that the social protests are fighting against. Covering the budget deficit at the expense of Israeli women is cruel and immoral.”

It also may be bad politics. Only one other MK expressed any support for raising the retirement age – Einat Wilf, from Atzmaut, the break-away party established by Defense Minister Ehud Barak. But Wilf absented herself from the vote.

Support for the proposed anti-Steinitz law was so widespread – crossing the spectrum from Yisrael Beiteinu on the right to Meretz and the Arab parties on the left – that the government did not even attempt to impose coalition discipline on its members, thus undermining its own finance minister.

Abramovitch attributes the success of the campaign to several different factors. “I don’t think that the MKs have suddenly all become raging feminists,” she notes wryly.

“But I do think that the coalition was able to work well and effectively and bring the real travesty of this move to their attention.”

The summer protests have emphasized social justice, Abramovitch says, and women have also been collectively empowered by the conviction of former president Moshe Katzav on charges of rape and sexual assault. “Women have become aware that they have to struggle for justice for themselves.



And politicians have come to realize that there is a gender gap developing in Israeli politics.”

Unlike other Western countries, Israeli voting patterns have never revealed a gendered voting pattern, or what is commonly referred to as a “gender gap.” But this, says Prof. Hanna Herzog of Tel Aviv University may be changing. “In the 2009 elections,” she tells The Report, “the attempt by some of the parties to mount a negative campaign against Tzipi Livni [head of Kadima and candidate for prime minister], focusing on the fact that she is a woman, backfired. In fact, it heightened women’s awareness of gender issues. When women are undecided about candidates, the gender factor can make a decisive difference regarding whom they’ll vote for.”

And since women usually make up about 2/3 of the undecided voters, taking women’s issues into account may be not only fair – it may also be smart politics.

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