Thursday is “Israeli day” at the Tel Aviv branch of Kav La’Oved (Workers Hot Line), so among the dozens of foreign workers crowded into the fourth-floor lobby, there are a few minimum-wage Israeli laborers looking for help.
One, Rosa, a 59-year-old cleaning lady, is visibly distressed over the letter she’s just received from her ex-employer, which ends with the words “and I intend to sue you according to the laws of the courts of the State of Israel.” Rosa was fired after returning the cleaning company owner’s Pessah gift, a cheap little toaster she considered an insult.
After getting fired, she went to one of the company’s clients, whose office she’d been cleaning for the last year, to get a letter of recommendation so she could look for a new job. The letter she got describes her as “a complete professional who works well with others and who would be an asset wherever she is employed.” When the owner of the cleaning company found out, she wrote to Rosa to expect a lawsuit “for acting against my instructions [by] contacting my clients and causing unpleasant provocations.”
Near a poster on the wall that reads “Decent work – decent life,” Rosa is waiting in the lobby to see a Kav La’Oved lawyer. I tell her she shouldn’t worry, that her ex-boss has no grounds to sue her, that it is an empty threat, but her expression remains troubled. “How do I know what she can do?”
Rosa worked only part-time, making about NIS 1,000 a month, and now she “has nothing to do with myself all day.” Her children are grown, her common-law husband makes about NIS 5,000 a month as a plumber and she’s worried about the future. “I went to the Employment Service and they didn’t even look at me. I’m going to be 60. Who’s going to hire me? What am I going to do for the rest of my life?”
The economy is widely considered the bright spot in the national profile. As a whole, the population continues to get wealthier, the business sector has proven remarkably resistant to the international recession, the hi-tech sector has become legendary; in all, Israel has risen to the middle ranks of the industrialized, democratic world in terms of prosperity.
But at the same time, it stands at or near the bottom of the industrialized, democratic world in terms of how evenly this prosperity is spread. The great gap in incomes between the rich and poor, as well as the large proportion of people living in poverty, is usually attributed to the size of the haredi and Israeli Arab communities, both of which are marked by large numbers of people who don’t work. Getting these people into the job market is usually touted as the solution to poverty and the income gap.
However, a report earlier this month by the Bank of Israel throws a great deal of cold water on that notion. The term “working poor” refers to households that subsist on a poverty-level income even though at least one member is employed. The bank’s report shows that between 1997 and 2009, a time when the country’s overall standard of living rose precipitously, the percentage of people ranked as “working poor” nearly doubled – from just over 20 percent to 36%.
By comparison, the proportion of working poor in the world’s 31 most economically advanced countries – the member states of the Organization for Economic Cooperation and Development – now stands at 7%. That’s one-fifth of the Israeli rate. What’s happened, say officials at Kav La’Oved , a free clinic whose clientele has been growing steadily over the last 20 years, is that in the last generation, private-sector workers have been left to fend for themselves against employers, without protection from the Histadrut or the government.
Says Kav La’Oved attorney Michal Tadjer: “In 1995, 70% of Israeli workers were unionized; today it’s less than 30%. Just about the only workers represented by the Histadrut anymore are the highly paid, ‘strong’ unions like the Israeli Electric Corporation.”
Adds Kav La’Oved director Hanna Zohar: “It used to be that the minimum wage [which now stands about NIS 3,800 a month] was an entry-level salary, and the longer you worked, the higher your salary rose. Now companies keep their employees at minimum wage for year after year; raises have gone out of fashion. More than 30% of the Israeli workforce receives the minimum wage. So when you see the exorbitant salaries these executives are paid, the money doesn’t come out of thin air – they’re getting the money other workers aren’t.”
Anna is dressed in a flimsy housedress with rolled stockings and tennis shoes. Several of her teeth are missing. She’s waiting to see a lawyer about getting the severance pay she’s owed from the families whose houses she’s cleaned over the last 15 years.
Anna is 73. “I used to work six days a week, 12 hours a day before I broke my hand. I worked at private houses, also cleaning stairwells,” she says. She was a nurse in Belarus for 33 years before immigrating to Bat Yam. Her husband, a 74-year-old former construction engineer, now brings in about NIS 5,000 working at an auto parts factory. They won’t be getting any pensions from Belarus, she says.
“I can’t say we’re poor now, because my husband works and I’ve worked all these years, but once we stop working, what will we live on – NIS 1,300 each in state pensions?”
Despite her age, Anna says she wants to go on working. “I’ve never been able to sit still. It’s a matter of character.” She says her ex-employers have agreed to pay her compensation for all those years she worked for them. But many if not most minimum wage employees do not get all the benefits coming to them, especially cleaners, security guards and clerical workers employed by manpower companies, say officials at Kav La’Oved.
Moshe is an example. A father of four and grandfather of eight, he’s been a security guard since the hotel where he was a waiter for nine years went bankrupt. “Being a hotel waiter was in my blood. But that’s life,” he says. He never got compensation, either.
For the last eight years, Moshe, 60, has been working eight hours a day, six days a week for minimum wage, which works out to about NIS 4,200 a month. For the last five of those years, he’s been working swing shift, 3 p.m. to 11 p.m., and the company, which employs many thousands of security guards, has decided that he’s not entitled to holiday pay, which is what brings him to Kav La’Oved.
“A lot of the people I work with complain that they don’t get vacation pay, or overtime, or sick leave – I hear all sorts of stories. For five years I didn’t want to complain about not getting holiday pay, but in the last three months they’ve been giving me the runaround, not giving me work, like they’re trying to get me to quit. They’ll never fire me – they’ll do everything they can to get me to quit. That way they don’t have to pay me compensation. So I’m not worried anymore about demanding holiday pay, because I know they’re not going to fire me, and even if they do, I don’t care. They have to pay me what I’ve got coming.”
Downcast and seemingly on the verge of tears during the interview, Moshe says his wife is disabled and he has to ask his children for money to make it through the month. “All my credit cards are used up,” he says. “I can’t say we’re dying of hunger, but it’s very hard.”
He knows very well the position he’s in. “I’m not 25. I can’t go out and find another job. I tell them I’m 60, and they say, ‘Leave us your telephone number, be well.’”
So the vulnerability of minimum-wage workers – roughly 1 million out of the 2.8 million people in the workforce, says Zohar – is not just that they don’t have union protection, not just that they have scant chance of getting pay raises, but that their employers commonly cheat them out of the little money they earn as well as the benefits to which they’re legally entitled. As the Bank of Israel report found: “The working poor, whose position in the labor market is uncertain and vulnerable, are unable to defend their rights. Thus, many are paid less than the minimum wage. Yet there is very little enforcement of the labor laws in Israel.”
Large companies that may employ thousands of minimum wage workers, primarily manpower companies, security guard firms and cleaning services, can make huge profits just by cutting small legal corners on each worker, says Zohar. “This is the name of the game. Let’s say you have a security guard company that employs 13,000 people and cheats each of them out of NIS 50 a month in overtime pay. Multiply NIS 50 by 13,000 – that’s a lot of money.”
Minimum wage employees, especially immigrants and Arabs, often are unaware of their legal rights or afraid to demand them, she adds.
And since, as security guard Moshe noted, these companies do not want to fire employees but rather want them to quit so they won’t have to pay severance pay and compensation, the companies use all sorts of techniques to force employees into quitting, Zohar continues.
“They demand that people answering phones or sitting at computers work very, very long hours, they dissuade them from taking breaks – which are absolutely necessary in jobs like these – by docking their pay. Worst of all, we hear of many cases in which employers deliberately humiliate employees, causing them psychological harm, to get them to quit,” Zohar maintains.
In the last year, though, there have been some improvements in labor law and the enforcement of it, says Tadjer. Since the beginning of this year, security guard, manpower and cleaning companies run the risk of losing their business licenses if they’re found to be breaking labor laws. “This is a very important law. We’re still waiting, though, to see how well it’s enforced,” she says.
Since the beginning of 2009, companies are required to give each employee a detailed salary slip, making it harder to cheat on salary and benefits, Tadjer adds. Again, though, the benefit of the law ultimately is judged by enforcement.
“The number of labor law inspectors in the Industry, Trade and Labor Ministry has increased. There are now hundreds of fines given out instead of dozens,” she says. “But compared to the number of violations being committed, this is still a drop in the ocean.”
And on balance, says Tadjer, the tiny advances in legal protection for the working poor are badly outweighed by the rising cost of living, the galloping prosperity of society’s “haves” and the ability of minimum-wage employers to find new ways to skirt the law and go on abusing their workforce.
“Overall, the situation for low-wage workers isn’t getting better,” she says. “Their work doesn’t get them out of poverty.”
Yoav Havsov (the only claimant interviewed at Kav La’Oved willing to be identified), a security guard in Kiryat Malachi, is almost a “regular” here. “I’ve come in to make complaints about not getting paid for the hours I work, about not getting vacation pay, about not getting travel expenses,” he says. “Everybody I work with has basically the same complaints.”
Working 48 hours a week, Havsov says he takes home less than NIS 4,000
a month. His wife is a nurse making upward of NIS 5,000 monthly, so the
household, which includes the couple’s two children and their
grandmother, manages. “We have a small apartment, the mortgage is
getting bigger – I don’t how, but it is,” he says with an ironic smile.
“We don’t spend much, so we get by. We just don’t get ahead.”
For a moment, Havsov’s vitality seems to flag. Drumming his fingers in
frustration, he says, “I’ve been a security guard for 20 years and I’m
still making minimum wage. This has got to change.”