Working for six months

At the half-year mark, the Wisconsin Program gets mixed reviews.

amin center 88.298 (photo credit: peggy cidor)
amin center 88.298
(photo credit: peggy cidor)
Two major events took place in Israel in August 2005: the disengagement from the Gaza Strip and the implementation of a pilot "Wisconsin" program. The disengagement, it turns out, was easier to implement than expected. The Wisconsin Program has been much more difficult. As reported in In Jerusalem ("Gaining from Employment," September 15, 2005), the Wisconsin Plan is based on a program initiated in the state of Wisconsin over a decade ago which then spread throughout the United States and Europe. Officially known in Israel as "Mehalev," an acronym that means "From the Heart" and stands for "From Welfare to Secure Employment," the program was initiated by the Finance and Trade Ministries. Its main objective is to bring thousands of citizens who had previously lived on welfare for long periods of time back into the workforce. Tenders were awarded on a pilot-basis to four multi-national companies who registered as companies here in Israel and employ Israeli personnel in four locations, including Jerusalem. 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. A4E, a British multi-national company, together with the Israeli company Amin, operate the center in Jerusalem. Although Mehalev has not yet released full data for these first six months, some numbers are already available. Throughout Israel, some 14,500 individuals who were previously receiving welfare and income guarantee payments were 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. Refusal to do so would result in the immediate loss of welfare payments and all allied benefits. Over 10 per cent of citizens included in the program (some 1,700 persons) have refused to attend or just didn't show and another nearly 10 percent have refused to cooperate. These people have now lost their benefits. Behira Bardugo, spokeswoman for the Mehalev, says that most of the persons who decided not to come at all are apparently working illegally "off the books" and so have preferred to waive their benefits and continue their employment. According to partial figures published by Mehalev and Amin, some 6,000 individuals have been referred to the program in Jerusalem and the vicinity. Thirty percent of them are Arabs, 10% are new immigrants from the Former Soviet Union and one percent are new immigrants from Ethiopia. 976 of them are single mothers. In Jerusalem, approximately 1,000 people have found jobs to date. Most of the social change organizations in Israel were initially opposed to the Wisconsin Plan. While some of these organizations have chosen to work "within" the system and formed coalitions to meet with the four companies and officials from Mehalev, others, more radical, have refused to do so and maintain their steadfast opposition to the program. The workfare plan, the more radical groups say, is guilty of an unforgivable original sin: privatization. The government has abdicated its authority and placed the responsibility for ensuring the right to live in dignity in the greedy hands of businessmen motivated solely by profit. The government is also guilty of illegal and immoral coercion, says Gili Rei, Director of Mehuyavut, one of the social change organizations most opposed to the program. "People who can work should go to work, that is obvious," says Rei. "The problem is that with this program, the state, through businessmen, sends aged Arab women who have never left their homes or haredi mothers of 14 kids out to work, ignoring customs and religious habits. The state should never raise the threat of depriving them of their income guarantees, ever." Despite these criticisms, most of the groups agree that in Jerusalem, the Wisconsin Plan seems to be operating better, more smoothly and more respectfully than it does in the other three locations, in no small part because A4E and Amin do seem to be genuinely interested in their clients as well as in their profits. Says Hilary Warmoth, general manager of Amin, whose A4E company has extensive international experience with workfare: "When we came, wefound an already-made program and our first job was to translate it into facts on the ground," she says. "So we started with the building of a model to which we added our philosophical position - such as the right attitude to the individuals, seeing the person and not the statistic... Then we moved to the second step: hiring and training the best team. They were all trained according to our philosophy. And third, we made it clear to all the staff that we were going to think and work in terms of long-term solutions." Yet despite the apparent good will, and in the absence of full data, both the organizations working with Amin and those who refused have issued reports critical of the program, nationwide and in Jerusalem. The lack of professional and occupational training is the primary criticism. While the participants in the program do receive guidance, especially in Jerusalem, regarding how to land a job, dressing for an interview and so forth, they are not provided with courses or workshops that would provide them with specific skills for reasonably-paying positions. Consultants inside the program agree. Said an employee of Amin in Jerusalem, "The meaning of the lack of courses is that people are doomed to get only service positions - mostly cleaning - which do not assure them a better future." While the government intends to save money by cutting stipends and getting people off the dole, the private companies implementing the program clearly intend to make a profit. These goals conflict, says MK Meli Polishook-Bloch (Shinui), who recently told a Knesset committee, "The profits of the private companies involved with the program depend on the number of stipends they save for the government, not the number of new jobs they create. [As a result] the plan does not answer all the problems it should and it therefore needs to be thoroughly scrutinized." There is extensive criticism of the selection of the participants in the program. Selected by the National Insurance Institute, the criteria included individuals whose age, physical capabilities or mental status make them poor candidates for finding employment. Furthermore, the program makes no provision for the obstacles that people face in trying to work on a regular basis, especially families with small children for example. Both the Knesset Committee that oversees the Wisconsin Plan and the State Comptroller have announced that they will investigate these criticisms. There are also criticisms which, while applicable to the entire country, are particularly relevant in Jerusalem. While the government has decided that able-bodied individuals must work, the question is whether work is available for them. This is particularly true in Jerusalem, where the number of low-tech and unskilled jobs is decreasing continuously. Ran Melamed, Strategic Advisor to Yedid, one of the organizations working with Amin, also notes that the issue of multi-culturalism, always complex, is even more complex in Jerusalem, with its large haredi and Arab populations who do not work for ideological and cultural reasons and who, at the very least, require particular sensitivity during their training. "Even if the government has decided that capable people should work, no matter what their beliefs," says Melamed, "the operation still must take their needs into account. We've seen instances in which Arab men and women or haredi men and women were forced to sit in the same small room, something which violates their religious codes. And the workshop facilitators are not always aware of cultural taboos, of what is proper to talk about and what isn't." Warmoth points to another cultural difference. "We were not aware enough of the impact of the different languages used here. We discovered on the spot the tremendous importance of the use and knowledge of Russian, Amharic, and Arabic. We had to face this new situation on the ground, which is totally different from what we experienced in Britain." A visit to the Amin center in downtown Jerusalem reveals a complex story and also highlights that for some people, the social and ideological criticisms have no importance - it's getting the job that matters to them. Tcherna Winberg, 51, came to Israel 12 years ago from the Ukraine. Deaf and mute, she seems to fit the profile of the "unemployable" who simply have no chance of ever getting and holding a job. Yet two months after she began the program, Winberg is gainfully employed in her profession as a seamstress and lives in dignity for the first time since she arrived in Israel. "When she came to my office the first time I was really concerned," recalls Shahar, Winberg's consultant at Amin. "I happen to know the language of signs used by the deaf-mute, so I was able to be aware of her capacities, her skills; I realized very soon I had in front of me an intelligent woman, who really wanted to work, who is tremendously motivated." Winberg went through the standard process: learning to write a CV, checking the wanted columns in the newspapers, participating in workshops, and lots of interviews and disappointments. "Then one day," Shahar recalls, "she came in with an ad she had found in a Russian paper. The boss at the factory initially didn't want to employ a deaf-mute middle-aged immigrant, but we put some pressure on him and convinced him to at least hire her for a week." That was over two months ago. Speaking to Shahar, Winberg said, "For me, it's a tremendous change in my life. I have something to get up for every morning, I earn my living, I can buy presents for my grandchildren, clothes for me. I live, I really live, in dignity. I am a working person."