Social injustice?

As social workers return to work after three weeks of absence, they seem ready to pick up the pieces and help the clients most affected by the strike.

Sunday's Social Worker's Protest _311 (photo credit: Marc Israel Sellem)
Sunday's Social Worker's Protest _311
(photo credit: Marc Israel Sellem)
S. is frustrated. It has been almost a year, according to his version of events, since his ex-girlfriend fled the country taking the couple’s young daughter with her, and it’s been less than six months since the two returned as part of an international child abduction case that made local media headlines last June.
But S., a long-term resident of Tel Aviv, has not seen his daughter for nearly a month now, because the on-going social workers’ strike meant there was no neutral third party available to facilitate visitation meetings.
“She does not know me at all,” laments the 51- year-old former Chicagoan. “She does not even know the word daddy or abba. I think that must be one of the worst things in the world – for a child to not even know her father.”
For S, who is embroiled in a bitter custody dispute with his daughter’s mother, the failure to spend time with his child is the least of his worries. As the social workers’ strike entered its fourth week on Monday, the legal process of deciding who will retain custody continued to move ahead, with the mother requesting the right to leave the country, and S. left standing with no support system and no one to explain to him his rights as a father.
“The clock is ticking and the only people who can help me, the only ones who have shown any interest in my case at all, are the social workers – and they are on strike,” noted S., who added that the legal aid assigned to him had not been helpful and as recently as last week he was told by a Tel Aviv court that he could not see his daughter for the next 90 days or even appeal the decision unless he had the standard recommendations from a social worker.
“I have been waiting for them to come back to work so they can help me figure this out, so they can advise me of my rights or at least let me see my daughter and get to know her,” he said, adding that just prior to the onset of this labor dispute a social worker had arranged a one-hour meeting with his daughter for him. That was on February 28, and he has not seen his daughter since then.
“She was the only person who has helped me in this whole story and now she is on strike. I did appeal for emergency assistance, but I don’t qualify apparently. I just hope they come back to work soon,” he said. “I’ve just had the worst luck, the day my ex-girlfriend came back to Israel, the state prosecutors’ strike started and now, when I want to see my daughter, the social workers are on strike and no one can help me.
“There is supposed to be a process, but now it is just not working. I don’t care about anything else, just making sure that my daughter is well and protected by social services. But no one is doing that at the moment.”
On Monday, the social workers union reached an agreement with the Finance Ministry, improving their conditions. However, S.’s predicament is familiar to thousands of individuals, who since the strike began on March 6 have appealed to either the Welfare and Social Affairs Ministry’s emergency hot line or to the Social Workers Union’s specially-appointed emergency team for help, but of nearly 3,000 requests, only a handful – those considered truly life threatening – have been approved.
It is only a matter of time, say those fielding the requests, before tragedy hits unless a speedy resolution is found to bring more than 10,000 social workers who work daily with children at risk, the elderly and infirm, in hospitals, health clinics, schools and more to return to work.
Yet despite months of negotiations, weeks of strikes and even an attempt by the Treasury to legally force social workers back on the job, the two sides seemed further apart at the start of week four than they had been since the whole ugly episode began.
On Sunday, after negotiations between the Itzhak Perry-led Social Workers Union and the Treasury completely broke down last week, some 3,000 social workers from around the country gathered in Jerusalem for a mass protest to demonstrate their resolve to see the fight through to its bitter end.
“In 1994, we were on strike for 64 days until we reached a suitable agreement with the government,” pointed out union spokesman David Golan. “While we really hope to resolve this dispute in less time, we plan to hold out until we get what we want.
“The Treasury does not seem to hear us at all; it is like the three monkeys refusing to listen, hear or speak to us. [At Sunday’s demonstration] we shouted and called for them to return to the negotiating table to help find a solution, but it fell on deaf ears.
Now our only option is to call on the prime minister to step in and resolve this.”
According to Golan, the dispute did not start the day the social workers launched their strike but was part of an ongoing fight to overhaul the profession’s basic pay structure, which has not been adequately adjusted since the 1994 strike.
The union has repeatedly claimed that an entrylevel salary is little more than NIS 2,300 and even after many years in the profession, workers – most of whom have multiple academic degrees – cannot expect to earn more than NIS 5,800 a month. It also points out that roughly one in three social workers must rely on income support because they earn less than the minimum wage.
Since the fight began, the Treasury has argued that salaries are not as low as the union claims, suggesting instead that the average social worker earns closer to NIS 8,000 a month. Even though workers have exhaustively pointed out that the higher wage earners work for specific institutions, such as the National Insurance Institute or the Defense Ministry, and that most social workers in the public sector work less than full-time meaning their salaries are exceptionally low.
IN ITS defense the Finance Ministry did make an offer last week to increase salaries by roughly 25 percent or more than NIS 1,000 a month for those earning on the lowest end of the scale. It even offered to include several other benefits, but the union rejected this deal, saying it was only a cosmetic change and in a few years they would be back to square one.
“Social workers are growing increasingly frustrated with the Finance Ministry,” said Inbal Hermoine, spokeswoman of the social workers movement Atideinu. “They see every day that passes as a wasted day when they could be working and helping people, but they are determined not to return to work unless there is a fair and just agreement to improve their situation.”
Hermoine explained that while on the surface the Treasury’s offer seems fair, “when you break it down, it is not what it seems.”
“All civil service employees were set to get a 7% increase anyway and 4% of the raise is linked to working an additional hour and a half a week,” she said. “That leaves a clear 14% increase, which the Treasury wants to spread out over the next three years and this, we are saying, is just not acceptable. Why can it not be given all at once?”
“We are not ready to go back to work yet, because the offer is simply not acceptable,” agreed Jerusalem social worker Shuli Gerson. “Even though we fight for the rights of the weak in society, we are also entitled to fight for our own rights. When the port workers even threaten to strike, the Treasury immediately finds a solution for them but not for us.”
Despite being determined to see the strike through to the end, social workers have expressed regret that their battle is coming at the expense of clients such as S. who desperately need their help.
“What we do is very important and it is not easy for us to stop working, but we really believe in the strike and we will continue until we see a change,” said one social worker who has turned out to almost every protest.
And none of them seemed particularly fazed by the dwindling media interest in their battle or those who are losing faith in their fight.
Last week Welfare and Social Affairs Minister Moshe Kahlon said that the battle has gone far enough and emphasized that “prolonging this battle is only hurting the 1.5 million people who need the social workers’ help.”
“Getting media coverage is not our main goal,” pointed out Golan. “We live in the State of Israel and yesterday’s news is already old, that is the reality of life here. The other reality is that as events happen here, such as the rockets hitting the South and a terrorist bombing in Jerusalem, even the social workers on strike must be on call to help those in need, which only proves how much we are needed here.
“Even though the main goal of a strike is to cause as much damage as possible, when we are needed then we have to be there to help, we have no choice. But we are determined to keep going until we get what we want.”