Making a clean sweep?

The city is looking into privatizing the sanitation department’s street-cleaning operation.

Dirty street 521 (photo credit: Marc Israel Sellem)
Dirty street 521
(photo credit: Marc Israel Sellem)
The first instance of privatizing the task of cleaning the city took place three years ago in the last months of Uri Lupolianski’s term as mayor. At the time, it applied only to the Old City. Now the municipality is privatizing the whole street sweeping department. The tender was on hold following some revelations about the harsh conditions the private companies are offering the workers, but this week a decision was made to award the tender to Ford Municipal Services. As things stand, the municipality will keep only the garbage trucks, and all the street cleaning will be put into private hands.
At the municipality all parties, including the sanitation department employees, understand that this is going to happen. The problem that remains to be solved is the working conditions and the regulation of these conditions. In other words, will the municipality supervise these conditions or leave it totally in the hands of the private employers as has happened in the Old City? Before the job of cleaning the Old City was privatized, there were 48 street sweepers working there. All of them were transferred to other tasks in the sanitation department, and the company that won the tender – Ford Municipal Services – hired new workers.
Today, there are 88 street sweepers employed by the company for the Old City, and at least in the area’s more prominent tourist sections, there is visible improvement.
But things are not so simple. According to several city council members, the employees’ working conditions are unfair.
Sometimes they are required to work up to 12 hours a day, seven days a week, but earn much less than they should had all those extra hours been paid as the law requires. (All the street sweepers in the Old City are Arab residents, a requirement by the employer so they can work on Shabbat.) The poor conditions imposed by Ford Municipal Services were brought to the attention of the municipality through Bema’agalei Tzedek, a nonprofit organization that was informed about the situation by a worker who read what was written on his payslip and discovered that the salaries were lower than required by law.
This week, at a meeting of the tenders committee, it was decided nonetheless to make Ford Municipal Services responsible for street sweeping in the entire city.
In response to the accusations of mistreatment of its employees, a Ford representative told the committee, “The company regrets the mistakes it has made toward the workers until now, and the company is committed to changing its attitude and improving the workers’ conditions.”
In comparison, the conditions of the street sweepers still employed by the municipality is quite different. The veterans (working there between 20 and 30 years) earn up to NIS 10,000 and more. Relative newcomers earn between NIS 5,000 and NIS 6,000, and they all receive social benefits, including pensions. But their working conditions are not suitable for the city’s needs, which is why there is a plan to shut down the department and privatize the work.
Street sweeping is done on a contractual basis, which means that the workers receive a salary per area of work, and not connected to the number of hours worked. “In fact,” says a worker, “we sometimes work much fewer hours. Our task is to clean an area. Once we finish, we can go.”
That is exactly what the municipality wanted to put an end to and replace with a system whereby sweepers would work a full eight hours, at least two shifts per day, so that the streets of the city would remain clean.
That is the basis of the current negotiations between the municipality and the workers’ union, so far without much success.
According to sources in the sanitation department, there is already an agreement that the older workers will resign with excellent conditions, while the younger ones will be transferred to other jobs within the municipality and will keep their benefits. Thus the municipality will be able tosign an agreement with a private company to take over the street cleaning.
“The only problem with this plan is that no one will defend the rights of the private company’s workers, and that’s a disgrace,” says city council member Meir Turgeman.
As for the unfair conditions of the workers employed by the private company in the Old City, an advocate has been appointed by the head of the department, Zion Sheetrit, after the revelations brought to him by Bema’agalei Tzedek, to look into the matter and see if the workers’ rights are being respected.
However, it is worth noting that a municipality committee that should be accountable for that matter does exist but has not met even once in the last two and a half years. The committee is headed by city council member Yossi Deitsch (United Torah Judaism).
“The project is still under discussion, and the number of employees who will resign as a result will be decided according to the terms of agreement with the workers’ union,” says a municipal spokesman.