Living in limbo

Mifromal's former workers face an uncertain, gloomy future.

Mifromal, Jerusalem's oldest and leading aluminum profiles extrusion plant, headquartered in Givat Shaul, closed its production lines on June 30. Three months after In Jerusalem reported on the factory's closure ("Factory floundering," June 24), most of the company's 250 former workers are still living in limbo suspended between hope and despair. The Histadrut had seemingly negotiated an enlarged compensation package of NIS 4 million, NIS 1m. over what is required by law. But now it appears that the deal has fallen through. Workers had hoped that Extal, the Mishor Adumim-based manufacturer of aluminum profiles, that acquired most of Mifromal's equipment and inventory for $1m., would eventually hire more than half of the workers. But those hopes have been dashed, too. Only half a dozen employees all in senior management jobs have made the move to Extal. An additional 15 are still working in the Mifromal plant as it sells off its assets and prepares for final closing. The rest of the workers 80 percent of whom are Russian-speaking immigrants over 50 years old who were earning minimal salaries at Mifromal are now living off their unemployment checks, unsure exactly how much compensation they will eventually get or how they will manage once the dole runs out. Mifromal was established in 1957. Formerly known as Mifalei Romema, the company is owned by the Tchoresh, Findar and Yazkan families of Jerusalem and the American Prizkin family. At its peak, Mifromal employed 540 workers. In 2004, its last full year of sales, turnover totaled NIS 10m. But over the past three years, the company has been in financial difficulty, and in mid-May of this year, it announced its closing, giving workers 45 days' notice. In protest, the workers barricaded themselves inside the plant for one week. The protest ended when the Histadrut and the company signed a deal that included the ostensibly enlarged compensation package, creation of a joint committee composed of representatives of the Histadrut, Mifromal and Extal to explore ways to integrate workers into Extal, and a Histadrut pledge to set up a committee with the Jerusalem Manufacturers Association to help find employment for those not hired by Extal. But reality is turning out to be not quite so rosy. After a meeting between representatives of the Mifromal owners and the Histadrut on September 21, it seems that the workers will not be getting the enlarged package they thought was coming to them. "Apparently the wording of the agreement is such that it is only in force if the plant is sold in its entirety as a whole and not piecemeal," explains Gennady Bogatirov, chairman of Mifromal's workers' committee. He has worked as a shipments manager at Mifromal for 15 years, following his aliya from the USSR. "No one paid any attention to this clause. We didn't think the plant would be sold piecemeal. We thought it was being sold as a whole to Extal," he explains. Nevertheless, Histadrut lawyers are checking the agreement and will decide if the union will go to labor court to challenge it after the holiday season. Attorney Yishai Beit On, attorney for Mifromal, insists that the workers are still getting a good deal from the company, with compensation above what the law mandates. "They are getting more than 100% of the mandatory compensation because they are helping us close quietly without the acrimony and court cases usually seen in Israel," he says. He estimates that Mifromal will close down completely within the next month. As the date approaches, In Jerusalem went back to see how the three workers interviewed at the end of June 59-year-old Rafi Peer, 64-year-old Dani Leon, and 60-year-old Yefim Gertzenshtein are faring. Older workers like these three men face particularly stark choices. Employers are reluctant to hire those over 50, thereby dooming them to years of joblessness. And it's not as though Jerusalem has numerous low-skilled manufacturing jobs to offer them, or that they will be eligible for occupational retraining. Unemployment payments run out after six months. On the other hand, due to recent changes in the pension law enacted in the past few years, they have to wait until they are 66 years and four months old in order to collect a full pension. But even the term "full pension" is misleading. In Israel, a full pension means that upon retirement, the worker will receive 70 percent of his monthly salary. If the worker decides to take his pension earlier, he loses 4% for every year that he is under the full pension age. Rafi Peer is lucky. He is one of the 15 workers still working at the plant. A forklift mechanic for most of his 35 years at Mifromal, he injured his back about two years ago and has been working as a guard at the gate ever since. He is married with three children, two of whom still live at home. His wife works half-time as a nurse. "Most of my former co-workers have not found new jobs," he says. "They are living off unemployment. I am grateful that I can continue to work. I am getting the same salary and I am buying time. Every month I continue to work means I am that much closer to the age when I can get a full pension." Nevertheless, he is still apprehensive. The problems with the compensation payments have him worried. "We were supposed to receive NIS 1,250 for each year of seniority. "That would have given me some NIS 43,750 in compensation. That is not a lot when you consider that it is supposed to tide me over until I can collect a full pension. Now, that has been cut by 25%. In addition, only those who left have gotten compensation. "I am afraid that now that there are only 15 workers left, the company will tell me goodbye and not give me any money. I can only hope for the best." Dani Leon has been employed for 44 years, 37 of them at Mifromal as a quality control worker. This enabled the grandfather of five, who immigrated to Jerusalem from Turkey in 1949 as a young boy, to finally purchase the apartment of his dreams in Pisgat Ze'ev some seven years ago. Now that dream home is turning into a nightmare as Leon struggles to meet the NIS 4,000 in monthly mortgage payments. "I bought this apartment while I was still working and making NIS 6,000 a month. "My wife works selling cosmetics and makes NIS 5,500 a month. I thought we were all set. I expected to work until retirement age. But now, I get only NIS 3,500 in unemployment and I will have another two years to go after unemployment runs out before I can get a full pension. Plus I've been told that our compensation will be cut by 25%. This makes things very difficult. "I was always afraid that once the workers dispersed the company would renege on the compensation package," he continues. "The Histadrut is very good for the Electric Company and the port workers, but I don't think it will be so good for the Mifromal workers. We will have to see if the Histadrut can get our money." Leon is further frustrated by the bureaucracy he has come up against. "When the National Insurance Institute representatives came to talk to us before Mifromal closed, they never told us that they deduct five days worth of pay from every monthly unemployment check. They also said nothing about deductions for income tax, social security and health insurance, plus an additional 4% deduction that no one has ever explained. When I asked what this is for, I was told it was the law. In addition, for 42 years, I paid into the Mivtahim pension fund. When I asked for my money, I was told I am not old enough to get it tax-free and I would have to pay if I withdrew it. "When I asked how much I could get now, I was told it would cost NIS 2,600 to find out." In addition to financial worries, Leon has to cope with the psychological ramifications of unemployment. "I have been working since 1961," he relates. "Every day, I got up and went to work. Now, I have the problem of what to do with my time. I don't have the money to join clubs or pay for leisure time activities. At first, being home was relaxing. "Now, it is becoming boring. I have no plans for the future. I am trying to make the best of things. I see others in far worse shape. At least my wife is still working." Yefim Gertzenshtein came to Mifromal straight from the airport when he made aliya from Moldavia 26 years ago. He worked as a welder and framer until a car accident a few years ago. Since then, he has been a driver in the warehouse. He suffers from back injuries, diabetes and high blood pressure. A father of two married children, he and his wife are currently living on her salary of NIS 2,500 as a cashier in a supermarket chain. "I am in the process of trying to get a disability pension," he says. "I am not a well person. I have filed for disability and have received some payment. But in the meantime, I am not getting unemployment. I am officially on three months' sick leave and I did receive compensation from Mifromal." For Gertzenshtein, like Leon, the psychological aspects of unemployment also weigh heavy. "I worked all my adult life. Now, I get up in the morning and I have nowhere to go. Until the day passes don't ask. It is very hard to live like this. But for the time being, I am happy to have some money to live on. I don't know what will be in another few months. I hope things will work out."