Fast day spurs protest over exploitation of workers

Tens of thousands of men and women who risk their lives to secure the entrances to schools, malls and supermarkets or who provide janitorial services in government and commercial offices or retail stores lack basic employment rights, according to Ma'agalei Tzedek, a religious social justice organization. Ma'agalei Tzedek chose Tuesday, the 17th of the Jewish month of Tammuz, a fast day which commemorates the breaching of the walls of Jerusalem by the Romans that led to the destruction of the Second Temple, to stage a protest outside the Knesset against the exploitation of these workers. In its third annual demonstration - each year focusing on a different social injustice - rabbis, social activists, retired generals and both religious and secular youth learned relevant Jewish sources and conducted panels on the plight of subcontracted workers. Executive Director of Ma'agalei Tzedek, Asaf Banner, said that in a survey conducted by his organization of 1,500 security and janitorial workers employed by work subcontractors not one enjoyed all basic labor rights such as paid sick days, a pension or transportation costs. Most complained that they did not receive overtime and were often inexplicably "fined" which resulted in a lower monthly wage. Work subcontractors are middle men who provide janitorial and security workers to large companies, institutions and retail chains. The workers get paid by the subcontractors. Avi Dabush, CEO of Mishmeret Avtacha, a small employment contractor based in Nahariya who provides about 700 security and janitorial workers to factories and supermarket chains in the Haifa area, said that tough competition made it difficult to pay his workers minimum wage, let alone additional benefits. "The big contractors are willing to sustain a loss in a tender bid to push out guys like me," said Dabush. Dabush explained that large retail chains and factories are not willing to pay work contractors more than NIS 25 an hour for a security worker who checks bags in the entrance to the store or for a janitor. But since it costs the employer NIS 25 to provide a worker with the minimum hourly wage of NIS 19.90 the only way the contractor can make a profit is by paying the security worker less than the minimum wage or by withholding overtime. Yaniv, who works in a supermarket in the Haifa area, told The Jerusalem Post that the salary slip he receives does not detail the number of hours he works every month. "I work between eight and 12 hours a day six days a week," said Yaniv who did not want to divulge his last name. "But I don't get any overtime pay. What am I, a slave?" According to recent media reports, state educational institutions and government offices also employ contracted workers at such a low hourly cost that the contractor cannot pay minimum wage without sustaining a loss. Just two weeks ago the Finance Ministry's General Accountant Yaron Zelicha issued new directives that set a minimum limit for salary costs that would ensure workers get paid fairly. Similar steps have been taken in state educational institutions. However, it is much more difficult to enforce labor laws in the private sector. Ma'agalei Tzedek's Banner said that another type of exploitation is the periodic firing of contracted workers. According to labor laws after ten months of employment a worker is entitled to seniority, which obligates the employer to pay for additional labor benefits such as pension rights and vacation time. Employers get around this by firing their workers after nine months. "In two weeks I will be fired," said Yaniv. "My boss did not even have the decency to present me with my layoff letter personally. He sent it via a fellow worker." Dabush said that none of his clients are willing to employ his workers beyond nine months. "It costs them 19 percent more on average. Why should they pay if all they have to do is fire the guy and hire another?" Banner said that he hopes Tuesday's demonstration will encourage citizens to get involved on behalf of the tens of thousands of contracted workers. "If enough people complain to the supermarkets, to the schools, to the institutions where these people are employed maybe we can change things." Banner said. "In a state that is officially defined as Jewish," continued Banner, "we, as a people who are no strangers to subjugation and discrimination, must not tolerate the exploitation of workers."