Exploiting minor differences

The cause of contract workers makes for better public relations. It’s easier to decry the lot of cleaners and security guards than of hi-tech service providers on exploitative personal agreements.

November 20, 2014 08:04
3 minute read.
southern Israel

Contractor workers work at a construction site in southern Israel. (photo credit: REUTERS)


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New Histadrut chairman Avi Nissankoren has declared a labor dispute that may on December 2 ripen into a general strike. The last time the Histadrut resorted to this weapon was in early 2012.

The average citizen may be forgiven for wondering why now? By all empirical indications, no dreadful downturn in working conditions have suddenly afflicted the country, despite Nissankoren’s ardent efforts to make it appear otherwise.

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To hear him, putting the entire economy on strike alert – with the colossal cost that entails – springs from genuine altruism on behalf of society’s have-nots: minimum wage earners, contract workers, and the disabled.

That in itself goes against the grain of the Histadrut, dominated as it is by the most powerful unions of the most powerful employee groups – the ones who earn most and who wield the utmost clout to extort more.

Historically, the Histadrut has paid abysmally low wages to its own employees in low-ranking positions or in low-prestige occupations. Integration of special-needs employees and hiring quotas for the handicapped hardly ever dominated the Histadrut agenda. Contract workers have been with us for decades and the Histadrut exploited them more egregiously than most employers.

So what makes the plight of all the above so much more pressing precisely at this particular juncture? What acute decline in their circumstances has occurred that mandates a possible general strike just now, with losses of billions of shekels daily inflicted on the economy? And why opt for a bare-knuckle confrontation when almost all differences with the government and employers are at most minor? For example, despite the indisputable danger that an egregiously steep minimum wage hike could cost jobs, nobody opposes some increase. The disagreements aren’t unbridgeable.

And while we’re at it, what about all the employees denied the security of collective agreements? Why isn’t the Histadrut taking up the plight of freelancers or of those forced to sign demeaning personal agreements for fear of losing their livelihoods? More employees than ever in Israel’s history aren’t protected by collective agreements, yet the Histadrut rarely rallies behind them.

It’s all about expedience and timing.

The cause of contract workers makes for better public relations. It’s easier to decry the lot of cleaners and security guards than of hi-tech service providers on exploitative personal agreements.

Nissankoren’s motives must be sought outside the sphere of labor relations. We are in the throes of the annual budget hullabaloo, when any player with vested interests to promote does his darndest to throw his weight around.

This presents Nissankoren with an unmissable opportunity to earn his stripes – especially with talk of impending early elections in the air. An opportunity as good as this may not recur any time soon. It’s therefore advantageous for Nissankoren to don the mantle of a no-holds-barred class warrior and determined defender of the society’s underdogs.

To be sure, contract workers deserve equal pay for equal work and they most assuredly deserve full social benefits.

That said, it’s patently absurd to force both the public and private sectors to hire under collective agreements every last sanitation staffer and confer tenure upon each and every watchman. That would, to begin with, interfere with the flexibility of all employers to decide when more workers are needed and how they should be engaged.

If Nissankoren’s way were adopted, Israel would become unique, enabling local trade unions to dictate outright how any employer – public or private – may deploy staff or take on additional help.

For reminders of what that would trigger we need only look back to the Israel of the 1980s, when the mammoth Histadrut empire collapsed and its flagship enterprises (like Solel Boneh and Koor) had to be sold off, inter alia rendering many thousands of workers jobless and let down by the machinations of their own purported union representatives.

Crucial to the disintegration of the Histadrut empire was the no-account padding of its payrolls and tenures that undermined any flexibility and economic sense.

We don’t want to regress there again.

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