Poverty trap

If laws already on the books were enforced, the lives of Israel's working poor could be vastly improved.

poverty garbage 224.88 (photo credit: Ariel Jerozolimski)
poverty garbage 224.88
(photo credit: Ariel Jerozolimski)
I wonder if anyone still remembers the poverty report. I wonder if anyone still remembers that the agenda for this election is supposed to be, at last, a social agenda. I wonder if anyone still remembers that so many of us are trapped deep in poverty. In order to make sure that we do not forget, let's recall what Supreme Court Justice Edmond Levy thinks about how the "poverty trap" is created. According to Levy's minority rule on the right to income support (in the context of the right to live in dignity) - "poverty traps are created, perhaps primarily, by the combined interaction of various factors: lack of equal access to basic and higher education, lack of equal access to basic infrastructure, lack of enforcement of labor law, breach of workers' right to form unions, the widespread persistence of unacceptable and illegal employment norms, and unjustified discrimination between human beings, which kindles estrangement and disadvantage." The latest National Insurance report on poverty in Israel presented a relatively new datum: 41 percent of the poor work part- and full-time. The growing phenomenon of violation of disadvantaged workers' rights is the main reason for their being driven below the poverty line. This phenomenon is not restricted to subcontracted workers, where a reality of labor rights violations looks like an inevitable fact of life. New victims include directly employed workers in marketing, communications, transportation, tourism and so on. We are talking here about violations of the basic legal rights of workers, violations that amount to a criminal offense. THERE ARE various reasons for this widespread violation of the law. Privatization, unemployment, globalization and the weakening of trade unions. In this reality, enforcement mechanisms should have moved more intently to contain the widespread violation of labor rights, which amounts to an attack against the rule of law, contributes to social gaps and to deeper more widespread poverty. But in fact so little has been done that one can add "lack of enforcement" to the list of causes of the contemporary poverty trap. In light of the processes affecting the Israeli labor market, what is required is not only more manpower for enforcement, but also deeper and more acute means of deterrence, which will exact a high price for violations of labor rights. Today, violating labor rights simply pays off. The tough competition in the Israeli market reduces the number of competitors. The survivors are bigger companies, which employ more and more workers. This is the case in security, tourism, communications and retail food marketing, where companies employ hundreds or thousands of workers. Systemic under-payment and violation of labor rights, even in small amounts, can add up to significant profits. Enforcement authorities in the Ministry of Industry, Trade and Labor do not understand - or do not want to understand - the need for changes in enforcement mechanisms. Demands by Kav LaOved and other activist groups are met with indifference. In May 2005 attorney Eran Golan from Kav LaOved petitioned the Supreme Court to order the ministry's Labor Enforcement Division to publish the names of companies fined for violation of minimum wage. Despite the ministry's eventual consent, which was endorsed as the court's ruling in July, the ministry has still not disclosed the list of delinquent employers, and apparently does not intend to do so. Kav LaOved will have to return to the court and petition again, this time against the ministry's contempt for the court's ruling. The Treasury has a key role in deterring employers against violation of labor laws. By setting minimum requirements for public tenders, it can prevent convicted labor law delinquents from accessing such tenders, including public security and cleaning tenders, licenses for private welfare services (nursing homes, hospitals and hostels), and public transportation licenses. But the Treasury prefers the lowest bid, even if it is clear that the cheapest offer relies on past and future violations of labor laws. Labor rights enforcement systems must change their lax attitude toward delinquent employers. Employers who violate labor rights hurt not only their employees, but the rule of law and society as a whole. And society, we know well, must be defended. The writer is the acting manager of labor rights organization Kav LaOved.