Wage dispute could deprive at-risk LGBTQ+ youth of needed support

Throughout the coronavirus crisis, at-risk youth have been caught in the middle of labor disputes and budget crises.

The rainbow flag, commonly known as the gay pride flag or LGBT pride flag, is seen during the first Gay Pride parade in Skopje, North Macedonia June 29, 2019 (photo credit: REUTERS/OGNEN TEOFILOVSKI)
The rainbow flag, commonly known as the gay pride flag or LGBT pride flag, is seen during the first Gay Pride parade in Skopje, North Macedonia June 29, 2019
At-risk LGBTQ+ youth are stuck in the middle of a worsening labor dispute at the Otot association, as a shelter for LGBTQ+ youth thrown out of their homes will be closed for ten days starting Tuesday in response to strikes and protest measures taken by employees in recent weeks and months.
Originally two hostels, the Beit Dror shelter in Tel Aviv and the Avnei Derech in Holon, which house LGBTQ+ youth who have been thrown out of their homes and LGBTQ+ youth who require intensive counselling and support, were set to close. The association eventually decided to leave Avnei Derech open, after joint efforts by the management and employees.
Beit Dror is the only shelter in Israel that accepts youth between the ages of 14 and 18. Due to the decision to close, for ten days at-risk LGBTQ+ youth who have been thrown out of their homes will be left without the specialized, secure framework provided by Beit Dror.
Employees at the hostels, and at additional institutions run by the Otot association, began negotiations in March due to poor employment conditions, as counselors working with at-risk youth receive just 88 agurot (equal to about 27 cents) over minimum wage, which stands at NIS 29.12 (equal to about $9.10) and social workers and coordinators have gone without a raise for about six years.
During the negotiations, Otot offered to raise the wages of counsellors by 25 agurot (7 cents) and the wages of coordinators by 1%. Social workers at the association, who receive lower wages than social workers in the public sector, were not offered any raise.
The poor working conditions at Otot frameworks and at similar associations for at-risk youth have led to a situation in which employees leave the company within about a year and a half on average, damaging efforts to form trust with youth who have been thrown out of their homes, according to the Koach LaOvdim—Democratic Workers’ Organization, which is representing the workers.
"One of the important needs for disadvantaged youth is stability, including the stability of the therapeutic staff," read a report by the State Comptroller on at-risk youth in 2020. "The team serves as an anchor and address for the plight of the youth and a replacement for their family. Their frequent departure and replacement is a crisis for those teenagers and may lead to a deterioration in their condition."
Workers have cut their working hours and done half-day and one day strikes in order to protest the poor conditions while also attempting to minimize the impact on the youth in the frameworks.
Otot's out-of-home frameworks provide services and a place to live for at-risk youth from across Israel, including LGBTQ+ youth, haredi youth and juvenile delinquents, among others.
While employees are protesting employment conditions at nine of Otot's frameworks, only the framework for LGBTQ+ youth is being closed. A spokesman for Koach LaOvdim told The Jerusalem Post that the union and the workers believe this was done intentionally to place pressure on those fighting for better conditions, as the LGBTQ+ workers tend to work for longer than other workers and as such are largely leading the dispute.
The Otot association told the Post that they had received a notification on Thursday night about a round of strikes in nine of their frameworks, which would lead to about 40 shifts needing to be filled. Due to the lack of manpower, the association decided to disperse Beit Dror. All the youth and staff will be transferred to other frameworks run by Otot and any youth requiring aid will be able to receive it through the other frameworks.
Otot and 19 other private associations work under the Welfare Ministry to run frameworks for at-risk youth. While similar issues with working conditions are being negotiated at the other associations as well, no other association has made a similar decision to close frameworks.
The union spokesman explained that the dispute is split between both the association and the ministry, as the ministry provides most of the budget for the association, but the association also has millions of shekel in reserves that is set aside for use for competing for new government tenders, while the union argues that the funds could be used for improving working conditions and wages.
In a text conversation with a worker at Avnei Derech in October, Labor, Social Affairs and Social Services Minister Itzik Shmuli stated that the ministry would "try to consider a solution," but that "in principle, [the ministry] does not have a special status in the relationship between [the employees] and [Otot]."
The union spokesman told the Post that as Shmuli supervises and provides the budget for the associations, the union saw the response as an attempt by him to "not get his hands dirty" and to keep the matter between the association and the workers. Shmuli himself is homosexual and he and his partner are parents to children born through surrogacy.
The Labor, Social Affairs and Social Services Ministry told the Post that it is "working vigorously to ensure the continuity of service in alternative frameworks and to make sure that no young man or woman is harmed."
The ministry added that "this is an ongoing labor dispute" and that "it should be noted that the ministry is meeting its full obligations, and even beyond that, as part of the tender."
"The need to resolve the conflict is at the top of the ministry's priorities and is handled personally by the minister and the director-general," said the ministry. "Recently, the association also submitted an improved proposal, thanks to this involvement. We call on the parties to reach a compromise that will allow a return to normal activity and we will continue our efforts to achieve this goal."
Under Israeli law, businesses are allowed to close services in response to disruptions or strikes by workers and a court has decided that the shut down by Otot is legal, although Koach LaOvdim stated that they believe that it's a disproportionate response and has called on Otot to return to negotiations.
According to Otot, the judge stated that she expected the workers to freeze their planned strike and for the association to freeze the planned dispersal of Beit Dror and Avnei Derech. The judge added that she expected a number of meetings for negotiations between the two parties in the next two weeks and would set a hearing for January 18. Otot responded affirmatively to the proposal, but the union refused, so the court rejected the request to freeze the dispersal of the two frameworks.
“Otot will continue to do everything in its power to end this labor dispute and hence calls on the representatives of the Power for Workers organization to return to the negotiating table immediately as the judge's advice and reach an appropriate solution for all parties,” Otot stated to the Post.
"Otot has acted with all means at its disposal in order to reduce the harm to the population it treats and has taken care to operate the frameworks as routine through personnel from the association's headquarters," added the association. "We did our best to improve the wage conditions of Otot employees and many suggestions for improvement were made, but they were turned down."
"LGBTQ+ youth without a home cannot be hostages of a labor dispute and the conflict must not be conducted on the backs of LGBTQ+ youth who need the stability and shell of a roof like [they need] air to breathe," said the Agudah - The Association for LGBTQ Equality in Israel in response on social media, calling on Shmuli to intervene to find an immediate solution. "We support the just struggle of the workers and call on the management of Otot and the workers of the frameworks to reach an immediate solution.”
The news comes as Israel prepares to intensify lockdown regulations amid a spike in coronavirus infection rates. During previous lockdowns, reports of LGBTQphobic violence in families and homes spiked among LGBTQ+ youth, with many suddenly stuck in difficult, or even dangerous, environments. While some youths tried or were forced to leave their homes, the lockdown situation made finding solutions much more difficult.
Throughout the coronavirus crisis, at-risk youth have been caught in the middle of labor disputes and budget crises.
In August, the government announced that it would close the HILA education program, which provides services to over 8,000 at-risk youth who dropped out of school, due to the lack of a budget. After a series of protests, the decision was eventually overturned after the Finance and Education ministries shifted budgets to provide NIS 1.5 billion for HILA and similar programs.