By RUTH EGLASH
Israel's flagship welfare-to-work program, Lights to Employment, will be extended for an additional three months, the Ministry of Industry, Trade and Labor announced Tuesday, in a last minute decision to save the controversial program and even consider widening its scope in the future.
The move to continue with the employment program, which is currently outsourced by the government to four private companies in Ashkelon/Sderot, Jerusalem, Nazareth and Hadera, was backed by Prime Minister Binyamin Netanyahu, who spoke about its merits in his inaugural economic plan earlier this year, and by the Knesset Committee for Labor, Welfare and Health, which has been actively passing legislation to improve the program's operation in recent months.
"We greatly welcome this step," commented Ran Melamed, deputy-director of social policy and communication for Yedid, which has been monitoring the welfare-to-work program since it started. "We believe that it should be extended and widened to serve the whole of Israel, of course with a few key changes."
Launched as a pilot program in August 2005, Lights to Employment - which is often known by its nickname, 'the Wisconsin Plan,' after a similar US initiative - was slated to end later this week.
In a statement from his office, Minister of Industry, Trade and Labor Binyamin Ben-Eliezer said he had an agreement with the government to extend the existing program at least until March, and during the coming months would formulate plans to extend it to the entire country.
Among the changes to the program, which Melamed said had already been approved by the Ministry, is the creation of a National Employment Authority to coordinate all existing employment programs and services under one framework and to monitor the progress of Lights to Employment. He said that legislation had already been drafted, and that the bill is set to be presented to the Knesset in the coming week.
The announcement to strengthen Lights to Employment, however, caused a backlash among workers at the already existing National Employment Service, who announced a general strike Tuesday over fears that their program could now be in danger of closure.
Ben-Eliezer immediately issued a statement expressing regret over the strike and assured employees at the service that a solution would be found that was acceptable to everyone.
Since its inception, Lights to Employment has came under severe criticism from social rights groups and politicians, mainly due to the government's decision to outsource it to four for-profit, multi-national companies, and also because of its general inflexibility towards participants, many of whom claimed they were blackmailed into joining the program; otherwise they would lose their state benefits.
Several key changes to the program in 2007, including allowing those over the age of 45 the choice to participate, increased its popularity and, according to Melamed, it has been running fairly smoothly over the past year.
However, he said that additional changes, such as allowing those who find employment to continue receiving benefits for a certain time period, were crucial to make it even more affable in the future.
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