Guess who's a major violator of the law?

A bill currently under consideration would make companies who commission services - rather than just the outside contractors - liable for violations of worker rights.

By ROY WAGNER
March 14, 2007 21:16
4 minute read.
Guess who's a major violator of the law?

Thai worker 248.88. (photo credit: Ariel Jerozolimski)

 
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Call it the matzliah - or successful - method. This not-very-sophisticated approach works as follows: First, you try to cheat someone out of something. If you succeed, then good for you. If, on the other hand, you're exposed, and the victims insist on getting what they deserve, you simply give what you should have given in the first place. Either you win or you don't lose. For many of the subcontracted workers in Israel matzliah is a day-to-day reality. In my own college I've encountered such a worker. She's a subcontracted cleaning person. Her stories about how a few hours are slashed off her paycheck have become routine. She's lucky in that after one of my colleagues makes enough phone calls, she usually gets paid eventually. But as for all those payments and benefits that the worker might have missed or doesn't even know that she deserves - all these payments find their way into the cleaning company's deep pockets. That's why a new law proposal states that the companies who commission services, rather than just service contractors, should be liable for violations of worker rights. Actually, this proposal is not all that new. Last year, when it was proposed by former MK Igal Yasinov, the Knesset rejected it. This year, it's Lia Shemtov, Dov Henin and Shelly Yacimovich who are pushing it forward. Recently, the ministerial legislation committee approved it, which gives this proposal a decent chance. The bill is important because anonymous contractors see themselves as being in business to provide cheap cleaning, not happy workers. But the service "commissioners" may be high-profile businesses worried about their reputation. That is the case, for instance, with Bank Hapoalim, which proclaims a commitment to doing business ethically, but was recently ordered by the Labor Court to compensate underpaid subcontracted cleaning workers. The verdict was based on the fact that the amount paid by the bank to the cleaning contractor was too small to allow the contractor to pay even the legal minimum. The bad news is that the Treasury is fighting against this bill, which would place liability with those who purchase the work or services of outside contractors. The reason for the Treasury's objection is probably the fact that 45 percent of subcontracted workers work in the public sector. As it turns out, the state is, at least indirectly, one of the leading worker rights violators. Yaron Zelekha, the accountant-general, publicly stated that the state's deals with labor contractors are "Sodom and Gomorrah." If the state becomes liable, it will have a harder time getting away with it. ABSURDITIES IN the context of public sector employment abound. Recently, after some hard work by Minister Eli Yishai and MKs Reuven Rivlin and Shelly Yacimovich, the Treasury finally agreed to increase the number of labor inspectors protecting the rights of Israeli workers from 19 to 60. But since even 60 inspectors are not enough to deal with the backlog of 2,000 complaints which lie waiting, about 100 temporary workers are budgeted to help them. These are to be temporary workers who will not be eligible for tenure, and will probably be employed through outside contractors! Experience indicates that these temporary labor inspectors will end up working for years, and will themselves eventually submit complaints concerning their own worker rights violations. Perhaps the Treasury succumbed to the pressures for increased enforcement because it realized that without inspectors the mandatory pension law which it is promoting will become a dead letter. Even today, pension is mandatory in the security and cleaning industries due to collective bargaining agreements. But since there is no inspection and enforcement, the number of security and cleaning workers who actually get pension allocations are negligible. The state ends up paying expensive welfare payments to the elderly, because it didn't enforce pension allocations from the private sector when it should have. But there's also a positive note. If you listen closely, you hear about more and more subcontracted workers who get organized and attempt to stand up to the matzliah method: security workers in the Weizmann Institute and Kaplan Hospital, subcontracted workers in Soroka Hospital, and most recently the exploited and abused postal workers, who received recent television coverage. These workers, subcontracted by the postal service through two outside contractors, claim that despite serving for many years they do not become direct employees of the postal service. They report humiliating treatment by superiors, underpayment and illegal nonpayment of social benefits. Sixty of the workers got together to file a lawsuit. Since then, they report supervisors calling them "uneducated cows." "We are treated like garbage in the street, our feelings are ignored, we're not human beings," said one worker. These first steps of self-organizing subcontracted workers must be nurtured. Security workers found a creative way to do just that: they decided to stage a soccer tournament between the newly formed worker unions. If you are touched by their plight, if you care about the rights of the people who provide you with essential services, and if you don't want to wait until it is your labor rights that are put on the line, you should support them. They will play on Sunday, March 18, at 4 p.m. in the Rehovot sports hall on Rehov Tschernichowsky. Be there to cheer! The writer is a board member of Kav LaOved - Worker's Hotline - and lectures at the Academic College of Tel Aviv-Jaffa.

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