Gaining from employment

In Jewish tradition, the greatest charity is to provide a person with a job, so that they can provide for themselves," Mayor Uri Lupolianski declared

In Jewish tradition, the greatest charity is to provide a person with a job, so that they can provide for themselves," Mayor Uri Lupolianski declared earlier this week, as he affixed the mezuza to the doorpost of the Amin Center for Professional Training in downtown Jerusalem earlier this week. That is definitely the Center's purpose: to find jobs for previously unemployed individuals. Opened one month ago, the center is part of the program known as "the Wisconsin Plan" or, a bit more cynically, "warfare," instituted in Israel on August 1, 2005, just over one month ago. The plan, based on a program initiated in the state of Wisconsin over a decade ago which then spread throughout the United States and Europe, is officially known in Israel as "Mehalev", an acronym that means "From the Heart" and stands for "From Welfare to Secure Employment." The basic idea is very simple, but given to different interpretations and implementations. Interpreted and implemented positively, Mehalev is a government-mandated effort to psychologically, socially and professionally prepare welfare recipients to get off welfare, get a job, stay employed and enhance their lives. Interpreted and implemented in a negative light, Mehalev is yet another attempt by the Finance Ministry to enforce neo-liberal and conservative economic policies by forcing people off welfare even if that means that they will suffer financially, socially, and psychologically. The program is costing the government some NIS 47 million this year and will run for two years as a pilot program. The Finance Ministry is betting that it's worth the money and that if enough people find jobs and get off the dole, the public will save money in the end. Throughout the country, some 14,500 individuals who are currently receiving welfare and income guarantee payments have been selected by the National Insurance Institute to participate in the program. According to laws and regulations specifically enacted to implement the program, individuals selected must report to the nearest center, for at least 30 hours a week, for a minimum period of four months. Any refusal to do so will result in the immediate loss of their welfare payments and all of the allied benefits (such as housing subsidies, discounts for children in kindergarten, and so forth.), Privatization is a crucial and controversial component of the program, which is implemented by private, for-profit companies which have replaced the public employment offices. The companies are responsible for placing the individuals in jobs and making sure they stay there. The entire process is directed and monitored by the Mehalev statutory authority. Tenders were awarded to four multi-national companies who registered as companies here in Israel and employ Israeli personnel in four locations. Maximus, a Dutch company, in cooperation with the Israeli company ORS, operates the center in Ashkelon; the US-based Calder Company operates the center in Nazareth, together with the Israeli company Marmant; while Agens, also a Dutch company, operates the center in the Hadera area, also together with an Israeli company. A4E, a British multi-national, together with the Israeli company, Amin, operates the center in Jerusalem. These private companies are out to make money. They have done so in other countries and they are banking that they can do so here. According to the Israeli plan, there are two ways to make money. Under the easy way, each company will receive a payment for every individual who is taken off the welfare rosters. Clients who refuse to attend sessions, who refuse to report to the center, who reject jobs that they have been offered will lose their benefits, and the company will gain a payment for their efforts, even if they were unsuccessful. If the company finds the client a job, it will get a larger payment than the "kickback" for just getting him or her off the dole. If the client holds the job for six months, the company will receive a bonus, and another bonus if he holds it for nine months. However, unlike some European countries, the Israeli system does not provide a bonus for finding the "right" job that actually suits the client's needs and proclivities. Each of the four companies has its own philosophy and methods of working, although all are required to develop a personal program for each and every welfare recipient referred to the center. But for the clients, no matter which center they are assigned to, participation is not optional. The companies are also supposed to offer workshops on topics such as resume writing, going for job interviews, basic computer skills, and so forth. And until they find a job, clients are required to devote a minimum number of hours a week to "volunteering" in jobs for the public good. In an organized tour of the facility in down-town Jerusalem this week, Amin's representatives and employees seemed genuinely committed to helping their clients. Says Vered (not her real name), a new employee, "I took this job because I was unemployed. Isn't that ironic. But Amin provided me with the training I needed to do a good job. This company really cares about the clients it serves." Hilary Warmoth relocated from Britain to Jerusalem to become General Manager of the Amin center in Jerusalem. Although she is still new to the city and just learning her first Hebrew words, she is convinced that Amin can both make money and make a real difference in their clients' lives. "Most of our clients have been out of work for a very long time. Many of them have faced failure after failure. We want them to work, but we know that it's not just a matter of technical training. We have to help the clients to believe in themselves, to be optimistic about their future. If we do that, if we treat them with respect and sensitivity, we will succeed and they will succeed." she says. That respect and sensitivity find expression in the way the building is planned, in the way the services are provided and in the atmosphere that the company creates. The multi-story facility has been completely renovated in comforting shades of blue. Each floor has a coffee corner, used equally and freely by both staff and clients. All staff members, no matter what their position, wear name tags with their first names. When a client first comes in, he or she is met at the reception desk and then views a brief movie, explaining his or her rights and obligations and the basic workings of the Center. After that, he or she is referred to an occupational advisor, who will be his main contact, mentor and guide throughout the process. Each advisor will see some fifty clients. Among the advisors are Hebrew, Russian, Amharic and Arabic speakers, so a majority of clients are able to converse in their native language. The meeting stations have been designed in a semi-open fashion, dividing the large space into intimate corners. Advisors and clients sit on the same side of the tables, so that the atmosphere is more supportive and less threatening, Warmoth says. She also notes that the center uses only Jerusalem-based vendors for all of its services and that the center itself, with its nearly 100 staff members, is actually a major Jerusalem employer, too. Upstairs, former Black Panther and social activist Reuven Aberjil is leading a workshop. Aberjil, who has been unemployed for years, was referred to the center as a client, but the employment advisors quickly recognized his social and leadership potential and engaged him as a part-time employee. Downstairs, tucked away, the Center maintains a dressing room, with an iron, sewing materials for quick repairs, basic cosmetics, and even work-presentable clothing, so that clients who have not worked for years are able to prepare themselves for an interview, should one come up suddenly. Unlike the American model employed in Nazareth, which insists that while the Center will provide the clients with skills training, the clients must find their jobs themselves, Amin employs work developers to locate employment opportunities throughout the city. Some of these opportunities are posted on notes tacked to the many bulletin boards; most are for low-skilled and low-paying jobs in light industries or cleaning services. More than 3,500 clients have already reported to the Center, according to Warmoth. Of these, a majority speak Hebrew as their native language, except for 75 clients who speak Amharic, 700 who speak Arabic, 440 who speak Russian and several dozen who speak various other languages, including French, Farsi, and Polish. Thirty of the clients are profoundly deaf and are advised by an advisor who signs in Hebrew. Forty percent of the clients, Warmoth continues, are already working part time and an unknown number are working "under the table," and scheduling their mandatory hours is complicated. Over 70 percent of the clients are over the age of 70, and a significant proportion of them are over the age of 50. Within this first month of operation, Amin has placed 160 people in jobs, and so far, 30 of them are still at the job. Most of the positions, she acknowledges pay minimum wage or only a bit more. In other cities, the program has had a rocky start. Tensions are high and high rates of clients refuse to show up. Last month, riots broke out in Nazareth and angry clients broke computers and destroyed company property, and nearly a dozen people were wounded. But in Jerusalem, the program seems to be operating smoothly. Ran Melamed, senior consultant to Yedid, a social rights group, attributes this relative success to two factors: the positive, supportive policies that Amin implements and the "The Jerusalem From Welfare to Work Coalition", composed of social rights groups, representatives of Mehalev, representatives of Amin, and other interested parties. The coalition is unique to Jerusalem, although Dorit Novak, Director of Mehalev, says that she is trying, so far unsuccessfully, to duplicate the idea in the three other cities. At a meeting of the coalition this week, representatives from groups as diverse as haredi Dudi Zilbershlag's Meir Panim, Yedid, the Jerusalem Business Development Center, and the Jerusalem Inter-Cultural Center, which coordinates the coalition, met with Warmoth and Novak to assess this first month. Melamed explains the motivations behind the coalition. Speaking for Yedid, he says, "Initially, we opposed the Wisconsin plan because, at its most basic level, it is a compulsory program with tremendous potential for violation of human rights. But once it became law, we realized that it would be much better to struggle from within, to be pragmatic and to monitor the program. We do not feel that it would be helpful to our clients to ignore reality." He continues, "We're not fooling ourselves. This government began the program to cut down on welfare payments. And the companies want to make money. But some companies want to make money, be humane and service their clients at the same time." The Coalition members contend that it is crucial to distinguish between the government's policies and those of the implementing companies. But not all of the social change groups in Jerusalem agree. At least two social action groups, Mehuyavut for Workers' Rights, and Community Advocacy, have refused to join the coalition, because, they contend, the very idea of the program and its compulsory and punitive aspects are a violation of human rights. Furthermore, they are ideologically opposed to the privatization of what they believe should be public services, such as unemployment services. So while the members of the Jerusalem coalition work with Amin and Mehalev, these two other organizations have formed a "Wisconsin Watch" to monitor what they believe are human rights abuses by the program. The coalition members largely agree that Amin is a reputable and well-intended company, but remain highly critical of the government's policies. Mehalev, they contend, is under-funded and will not be able to provide the 14,500 clients with the job training, child care subsidies and other assistance that clients need to get out and get a job. And the appeals committees, to which clients can turn to reverse a decision taken by the Centers, have not even begun to function yet. For political reasons, they contend, the government was in too much of a hurry to implement the plan, and the preparation has been inadequate. Furthermore, they note, the government's policies have created a catch-22 for many clients. Once the client gets a job, his welfare check and all of the allied subsidies are cut off. So while even minimum wage is higher than income maintenance benefits, the entire package of benefits is much higher. In Britain, this is not the policy, Warmoth notes, and benefits are cut-back gradually, thus maintaining the incentive to work. Melamed and Hagai Agmon-Snir, head of the Jerusalem Inter-Cultural Center, are also concerned about cultural sensitivities in Jerusalem. "Jerusalem is made up of many different populations - haredim, Arabs, immigrants, veterans, religious, non-religious, haredi and many more. They have different work requirements and different cultural expectations. I foresee that as more people from different backgrounds come to the center, issues of cultural sensitivity will become more central," says Agmon-Snir. The bottom line question, all agree, remains open: Can even a company like Amin overcome Jerusalem's chronic employment difficulties and lack of opportunity? Warmoth is confident that in addition to taking maximum advantage of existing opportunities, Amin will be able to create new employment options. This month, clients will begin to serve as tourist hosts as part of their volunteer program. Warmoth is hopeful that if the municipality and tourism officials recognize how helpful these hosts are, they will agree to employ them. Working with the Coalition, Amin is also planning to create their own employment companies, such as a restaurant, a service company, and a cooperative laundry.