Histadrut head to 'Post': Government doesn't act without feeling pressure

Israel has missed a "lot of economic momentum" during the coronavirus crisis, according to Histadrut labor federation chairman Arnon Bar-David.

Histadrut labor federation chairman Arnon Bar-David addresses a press conference, March 10, 2020  (photo credit: HISTADRUT SPOKESPERSON)
Histadrut labor federation chairman Arnon Bar-David addresses a press conference, March 10, 2020
The government only moves to combat the economic fallout of the coronavirus crisis when pressure is ratcheted up, rather than taking the lead itself, Histadrut labor federation chairman Arnon Bar-David told The Jerusalem Post on Thursday.
"The state doesn't move without pressure being applied, and that concerns me," said Bar-David, who has headed the century-old workers’ organization since March 2019. "I like to initiate things: to lead and not be led. The Finance Ministry constantly finds itself being led by all sorts of bodies that are applying pressure. Elsewhere in the OECD, countries decide almost on the first day what they are doing and then maybe fix it here or there."
Bar-David has been a vocal critic of the government's economic response to the crisis, warning that Israel stands on the verge of an “economic Yom Kippur War” and repeatedly calling on authorities to release cash – rather than loans – to keep struggling businesses afloat.
Israel has missed a "lot of economic momentum" during the crisis, he said, due to bureaucratic barriers preventing – and continuing to prevent – the implementation of solutions.
"We copied health models from the world, primarily Europe, but we did not copy successful economic models," said Bar-David. "I do not understand it, because the information exists and we could have learned from the world. We are lagging behind most other countries."
Protests by the self-employed and large businesses were inevitable given the Finance Ministry's inability to deliver financial assistance, he said, adding that it is still not too late for the country to enable self-employed workers to receive the same unemployment benefits as salaried employees.
No solution has yet been found to compensate large businesses either, although Bar-David touts a possible solution based on measuring reduced revenues. Grants could be offered to businesses with large turnover, he said, based on the number of employees that return to their original roles.
"The self-employed should receive unemployment benefits because they pay national insurance contributions exactly like salaried employees. I heard [National Economic Council chairman] Avi Simhon discussing such a mechanism yesterday. That would neutralize the anger of the self-employed workers and put all workers in Israel on par with one another," Bar-David said.
Emphasizing the need to return all sectors in the economy to full capacity as soon as possible, the Histadrut chairman says that the government made an error by not opening all stores earlier this week, excluding malls. Hairdressers could have returned to work as long as they fulfill strict health regulations.
Contributing to the ongoing and contentious government debate regarding further easing of restrictions on the economy, Bar-David argues that all sectors should return to full capacity on May 3, as long as they meet the Health Ministry's "purple badge" safety criteria. Exceptions, he added, should be made for employees aged over 65 with pre-existing health conditions and in communities with exceptionally high rates of the virus.
"We need to return all sectors to 100% capacity as quickly as possible. It is not healthy that employees are sitting at home," he said. "We need to return the economy to full operation as soon possible."
Several sectors will take longer to recovery, notably the restaurant, culture, hotel and aviation industries.
"We are fighting for the life of El Al at this very moment. It is a difficult battle versus the banks, the government and the employees," said Bar-David. "The company will need to be smaller, as I believe the world of aviation will change in terms of capacity, destinations and traffic. Where there are changes, there must be adaptations."
Speaking to the Post a short time after the Bank of Israel forecast that the absence of parents from the workplace costs the economy approximately NIS 2.6 billion per week, Bar-David said he did not envy the difficult decision faced by Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu with regard to reopening schools.
"We need to look at what certain countries in Europe do and learn from them. We do need to start to return to education – and I also see May 3 as the date when young children could return to school and kindergarten, maybe in small groups," he said. "We need to learn how to live with the coronavirus; we cannot stop the world and wait."
Welcoming the coalition agreement reached by Netanyahu and Blue and White leader Benny Gantz earlier this week, Bar-David described it as a "good government for the State of Israel in this situation." Former Histadrut chairmen Amir Peretz and Avi Nissenkorn are expected to serve as the economy and justice ministers in the new government.
Bar-David also expressed his hope that the Histadrut and the government will see "eye-to-eye" on how to advance the economy, create a better world and ensure less hatred between different groups.
"We are now just before Independence Day and the government needs to reduce tension and verbal violence. We need reconciliation and to talk about values," he said.
"We are living in the State of Israel; there are enough threats and we need to join together. We entered the coronavirus crisis together and we need to finish it together."