Histadrut Labor Federation Chairman Ofer Eini instructed trade unions and workers' committees to prepare for a general strike in the public sector as early as Tuesday, as talks with the Finance Ministry over public sector wages came to a deadlock. "The proposal made by the Finance Ministry cannot be taken seriously, it's ridiculous and pitiful," said Eini. "It represents an attempt by the Treasury just to make a statement that they are making an offer." Eini's strike instructions were announced after a meeting with the Finance Ministry's wages director, Eli Cohen, who proposed a total increase of 0.2 percent to the workers' salaries for the years 2006 and 2007. In recent months of negotiations over a new salary agreement, the public sector workers' unions have been demanding a 10.4% wage increase for the 600,000 public sector employees retroactive from 2001, claiming that their wages have been eroded in real terms in recent years. Cohen, who previously maintained that the state would not grant any increase to its employees' wages, warned that a 10% public sector wage increase demanded by the Histadrut would cost the government NIS 8 billion in additional budget spending next year and was poised to lead to a wage increase at a cost of billions of shekels for the business sector as a whole. Meanwhile, the director-general of the Ministry of Tourism, Shaul Zemach, warned on Thursday that a general public strike would cost the tourism industry over â‚¬1 million in direct damages a day. The ministry said it had received no reply to a letter sent last week to Eini by Zemach urging him to leave all workers related to the tourism industry out of the labor dispute, if a general public strike is declared. The labor dispute covers over 1 million workers and could include employees in government offices, the Bank of Israel, ports, trains, Ben-Gurion Airport, the postal service, some hospitals and government companies such as Israel Electric Corp. At the beginning of last week, Finance Minister Ronnie Bar- On agreed to renew talks over raising the salaries of public sector workers with the Histadrut, which represents more than a quarter of the country's workers, in an attempt to head off a strike by state employees. The Histadrut held a week of talks with the Finance Ministry's wage division, but no agreement has been reached. Eini and Bar-On will meet again on Monday, after which the Histadrut could announce a general public strike, if the meeting proves to be unsuccessful. "As the Treasury's budget division is our main negotiator, we are not expecting some miraculous outcome from the meeting with the Finance Minister," said the Histadrut.