Arab council workers launch strike

Workers who haven't received salaries for 1 yr accuse gov't of discrimination.

A few weeks ago, Ramzi Aslan, a Druse man from the village of Maghar, finally received five months of back pay and returned to work at the local council after two months on strike. Last week he stayed home again in solidarity with workers from other Arab councils who still had not been paid. "We are all discriminated against, Druse, Muslims, Christians and Circassians," said Aslan, 41, head of the Maghar council workers' union, as he sat with his five children under grapevines in his yard. "We need to unite in order to get our rights." On Thursday, all 7,000 employees of Muslim, Druse, Christian and Circassian local councils stayed home in solidarity with the 3,000 among them who still had not received salaries. Municipal workers in Taiba had not received their salaries for a record 12 months. In Ibellin, workers have not been paid for eight months. Aslan is not even sure that he will receive this month's salary. It was supposed to be paid Thursday and he didn't get it. "You don't know what it's like not to get paid for five months," he said, noting that unemployment in his town of 20,000 Druse, Muslims and Christians is 40 percent. "They talk about fighting the war on terror. Do you know what violence the poverty causes in homes and in schools?" The problem of payment of salaries to local council workers is not new and until recently it was common to both Jews and Arabs. In September 2004 the National Labor Court ordered the Interior Ministry and Finance Ministry to pay the back salaries. Since then the Jewish local council employees have been paid, but employees of 30 Arab local councils still have not received their salaries from anywhere between two to 12 months. "The discrimination toward the Arab councils is clear," Salih Saad, head of the division of local councils in the Histadrut, told The Jerusalem Post. Saad was the one to call for the one-day solidarity strike. Arguments between ministries and the local councils center around the collection of local taxes (arnona). The ministries accuse the councils of not collecting. "In Jerusalem, the haredim don't pay because they are poor," Aslan said. "We are poor too, but they want to force us to pay what we don't have." But behind the issue of the salaries is a bigger issue of investment. Israeli Arabs accuse the government of not investing in their areas so that they can benefit from higher employment and from the high arnona that factories pay. "We have 20,000 citizens and not a single factory," Aslan said. "In Beit She'an and Karmiel, they don't need special appropriations from the government to pay salaries because they get so much from the factories." Aslan, who served in the army like most of the people in Maghar, said the discrimination would lead to a "catastrophic situation." "I have lived 40 years in this house and I still have no sewage system," he said as he swatted the mosquitoes. "We serve in the military, we are loyal citizens, but we don't get jobs and we don't get building permits. There are some 800 young couples in this town who are waiting for permission to build homes." Pulling out his Israeli ID card, he said: "I am proud to hold this. This is the best country in the region. But we feel discriminated against. This country needs to take care of its citizens." Meanwhile, 90% of the local council workers - Aslan included - have not received compensation for some three years during which money was taken from their salaries for savings plans and pensions, but used by the municipality for other purposes. "This is theft," Saad said, "and if they don't pay it soon we will file a complaint with the police."