The black market

Manpower companies hire Ethiopian janitors because they figure they don't know their legal rights.

JPost talkback add (photo credit: )
JPost talkback add
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In a barebones public building in a rundown neighborhood alongside the industrial zone at the edge of Rehovot, about 10 Ethiopians are waiting to bring their complaints to Yifat Solel, a labor lawyer for Tebeka. The name of the free legal clinic for Ethiopian immigrants is Amharic for “advocate for justice,” and that is exactly what they need. This story is about the many, many thousands of Ethiopian immigrant janitors in Israel those on the lowest rung of the Jewish labor ladder and how their Israeli employers systematically, illegally cheat them out of wages and benefits. “Of the first-generation Ethiopian immigrants,” Solel explains, “nearly all of those who work are employed at minimum-wage jobs through manpower companies as janitors, security guards, home caregivers and other, usually non-industrial positions. It's common for these companies to short their workers on their hours, and you can hardly find one that pays holidays, sick leave, vacation pay, compensation for being fired, or other benefits to which all Israeli employees are legally entitled.” In two years, Solel has handled about 400 Ethiopian clients, mainly janitors, who've complained of being cheated by manpower companies that employ them. “Every month we get a request from welfare or absorption workers to open legal clinics for Ethiopians in other cities,” says Solel, who also holds regular clinics in Netanya. But she is Tebeka's only lawyer handling civil complaints and, while she has a team of law students assisting her, the office is swamped. “We have 250 cases outstanding,” she says. “Sara” is one such case. An Ethiopian woman of about 30, she enters the office holding an infant boy. She has been here before. Like every other complainant coming into the office, she does not want her real name used in this story. She says she's being kept in an impossible position by the manpower company that employs her. The company had a cleaning contract at an electronics firm for the past two years, but since the electronics firm didn't renew the manpower company's contract, the company has had no work for her, yet refuses to fire her and pay her compensation. “They tell me to wait at home until they have more work for me. It's been a couple of weeks now,” Sara tells Solel. “That's illegal,” the attorney says, explaining that if the manpower company can't employ Sara, it must give her a letter of dismissal, which will then require it to pay her compensation. This, Solel adds, is why manpower companies, once their contract for janitorial services with a firm runs out, typically fail to fire their employees officially. Instead, they string them along with promises of work in the indefinite future, confident that the employee will not take the case to a lawyer. That, after all, costs money. When an employee approaches Tebeka, Solel says, an attorney's letter threatening a lawsuit is often enough to convince the manpower company to pay the employee what it owes. Maybe it will work for Sara. “Here's what we'll do,” Solel says. “I'll send them a letter tomorrow demanding that they give you a letter of dismissal, and pay you compensation for every day since you stopped working plus interest. In the meantime, you sign up at the Employment Service tomorrow for work and unemployment benefits.” Then Sara mentions another problem she had with the manpower company before the work ended. “They didn't pay me for all the hours I worked,” she says. “For every five hours I worked, they took one off.” This is a common complaint by Ethiopian janitors. They cannot prove it from their salary slips, because the slips are filled out by the manpower company, which simply fills in fewer hours than were actually worked. But Sara brings something extra in the way of evidence, something rare: a printout of her actual hours on the job, day after day, from when she clocked in until she clocked out. “One of the secretaries gave it to me without anyone knowing. She went through the same thing we're going through,” Sara says. Solel checks Sara's work hours for the month according to the printout 133 and the salary she was paid NIS 1,900 takes out a calculator and figures she was paid NIS 14.28 an hour. The legal minimum wage is NIS 17.93. “Unbelievable,” says the attorney. “They stole about NIS 480 from your month's pay more than one-quarter of it.” All this will go into the letter Solel is writing to the company. The company may get scared and give Sara her letter of dismissal along with her compensation, unpaid wages and benefits. With the printout from the time clock, it would seem that Sara has an airtight case against the manpower company to take to the Labor Court. But that's not the way it works. Manpower companies that cheat their employees aren't terribly afraid of being sued by their employees in court, says Solel. “First of all, the Labor Court tries to get the two sides to compromise before the case goes to court, which means the employee is under pressure to accept less than what was taken from him,” says the attorney. “Second, the Labor Court will not award punitive damages [i.e. require the employer to pay the employee even more than he owes, for the sake of deterrence], so the employer knows that if he cheats an employee, the worst that can happen is he'll have to pay up in another six months, which is how long these cases take to get to court. “Once I had an employer in my office who owed an Ethiopian janitor NIS 31,000 in unpaid wages for eight years of work,” Solel continues. “The employer offered a settlement of NIS 7,500, which I of course rejected, and I told him I'd take him to court. And he said to my face, 'It's not worth it to me to pay what you're asking because I'm not going to get hit with punitive damages, so I'll see you in court,' and he walked out.” Asked whether there are any honest manpower companies, Solel replies, “I haven't come across any.” The problem of Israeli manpower companies cheating janitors, especially by paying them below minimum wage, is “huge,” says Hezi Ophir, head of the Labor Ministry's law enforcement division. With a meager 18 investigators nine teams of two investigators each to enforce labor laws throughout the entire country, Ophir's division has to work by triage method to throw its resources into solving the most critical problems, leaving the less critical ones for the theoretical future. “Our three areas of focus are janitors, security guards [both of whom are employed almost solely by manpower companies] and Arab workers,” says Ophir. Labor Ministry investigators have caught “dozens” of manpower companies employing janitors, and every one had Ethiopians predominantly Ethiopian women among the workers, he says. But there were also, even in greater numbers, Russian immigrants working as janitors for these companies, notes Ophir, maintaining that the problem is not confined to Ethiopian immigrant janitors, but to all Israeli janitors, because working for an Israeli manpower company is a vulnerable position to be in. “These are people without job skills that are in demand on the labor market, and who do not have good command of Hebrew, so they become janitors because that's what's available for them,” he says. Because of their weak Hebrew and, in many cases, their lack of formal education of any kind, they aren't aware of their legal rights the minimum wage, overtime pay, sick days, holidays and other benefits due them. Ophir says the law enforcement division recently spoke to an audience of Ethiopian minimum wage workers organized by Tebeka in Rishon Lezion to explain their rights to them. “None of us [labor law investigators] speaks Amharic, which is also a problem,” he notes. In hunting down companies that are cheating their employees, Labor Ministry investigators depend to a great degree on workers inside the companies coming forward, usually secretly, with information. Asked if he could recall a case in which the in-house informant was Ethiopian, Ophir thinks for a moment and says, “As a matter of fact, I can't.” This victimization on the job is an instance in which Ethiopian manners, along with their image among Israelis, is a terrible liability. The stereotype of Ethiopian immigrants, who now number some 105,000, is that they are nice to a fault, passive and obedient. “The manpower companies have a strong preference for hiring Ethiopian janitors because they figure they don't know what their legal rights are or how to get them and the employers are usually correct,” says Solel. Yitzhak Dessie, founder of Tebeka and Israel's first Ethiopian immigrant attorney, says Ethiopians are easier prey for employers than the Russian immigrants and Israeli Arabs who make up the remainder of the pool of Israeli janitors. Unlike most Russians and Arabs, Ethiopians in Israel are generally foreign to the ways of gathering information and taking action against maltreatment and the employers know it, Dessie notes. “The Ethiopian is usually easier to exploit because he's very introverted, and his mentality, his way of life, is such that he gives respect to his employer, to anyone in the 'establishment,' more so than an Arab or a [former Soviet] immigrant will. He's not a chutzpan. In most cases, the employer translates this as weakness, as being 'too nice,' and the employer knows he can cheat the Ethiopian out of a couple of days' work, or fire him without paying compensation, because he knows he won't get sued the Ethiopian employee doesn't have the power to do it, ” says Dessie. That, he points out, is where Tebeka comes in. The cluster of Ethiopians waiting outside Solel's door are exceptions to this rule of passivity, but even they might not have come forward, says Solel, if Tebeka weren't so easily accessible. “The people who come here live in Rehovot. If the office is too far away from them, they won't come,” the attorney notes. This isn't a surprise, considering that few if any Ethiopians working minimum or sub-minimum wage jobs have cars, and even bus fare isn't always affordable. Among these exceptions to the rule in the Rehovot office, Sara is even more exceptional. Her employer the one from which she aims to get dismissal compensation because it has no more work for her tried to do to her what manpower companies commonly do to janitors: pay her in cash, off the books, after her first 10 months on the job, thereby getting around the law requiring companies to pay dismissal compensation to employees working longer than that. “They wanted to pay me cash and I told them, 'I'm not a foreign worker, I'm a Jew,'” Sara recalls, unwittingly making the point that there are laborers in Israel treated even worse than Ethiopian immigrants. A list of complaints Solel filed in May with the Labor Ministry on behalf of 27 Ethiopian employees, mainly janitors, who worked for 15 different manpower companies, gives an idea of the variety of ways these people get taken advantage of by other, less innocent Israelis. Two janitors, according to a complaint, were “taken to work every morning at 7 and returned home at 9 a 14-hour work day. They were driven to various homes to do cleaning work. They were paid only 5-7 hours a day for their work. The employer came to their home and warned them not to complain against him.” Three immigrants were “employed as security guards at the Israel Electric Corp. [which contracted the work out to the manpower company] from June-August 2003 without being paid.” Three immigrants did janitorial work for several days but never got paid because the manpower company that hired them “disappeared. [The company] is known for having failed to pay a number of other employees.” An immigrant janitor was “fired while being pregnant after working for two years and three months at the Faculty of Agriculture in Rehovot [which contracted the work out to a manpower company]. Not only was she fired, but she was not paid any compensation.” Solel recalls a case she had a couple of years ago against a contractor who went to the absorption center in Lod and rounded up a dozen immigrants to take construction jobs, promising them, of course, to pay them. “They worked for anywhere from a few days to six weeks, all day and into the night, even when it was raining,” the attorney recalls. “They never received a shekel.” A man walks into the Tebeka office and complains of yet another tactic favored by manpower companies so they can fire janitors without paying compensation. “I was working for five years at this plant when the [manpower] company lost its contract [for cleaning services],” he says. “So they started sending me here and there, to work a day, two days. They sent me to Lod, Ramle, Holon, and then they told me to go home and wait for work. They sent me a letter saying I could go back to work full-time, but after I worked about a week, they sent me home again.” What the company did by sending him from one distant place to another, Solel explains, was to try to induce the employee into quitting, which would absolve the company of having to pay dismissal compensation. “The company claims that [the employee] refuses to go back to work,” Solel notes dryly. Another Ethiopian janitor comes into the office and registers a complaint against this same company one of Israel's largest saying it stopped giving her work after 15 months on the job without a letter of dismissal or compensation. “First they told me to wait a couple of weeks, then they gave me work in Yavne for six days, then another place for a day, then another place for a day, then they sent me home, and a week later they told me I could have steady work in Yavne, but after a day there they sent me home and told me not to come back. I've been calling the boss since then, but he never answers,” she says. Asked the name of her boss, the janitor mentions a name that elicits a sarcastic smile of recognition from the attorney. “His name comes up a lot,” Solel says, noting that he is the company's regional manager for the southern inland plains. The janitor adds, “My paycheck was always three or four hours short.” “What a surprise,” Solel says. Contacted by telephone, the boss in question says his company employs several thousand workers, some one-third of whom are Ethiopians. “Two people complain that they're not being treated well, what does that mean?” he demands. The two ex-janitors who showed up at Tebeka, he adds, are bringing nothing but “nuisance suits” against the company, which it fully expects to win in court. He insists that his company does not exploit Ethiopian janitors and even gives them loans and other perks. “There is certainly a problem of exploitation of Ethiopian janitors in Israel, but we're not the ones to blame,” the manager maintains. The advent of manpower companies and their maltreatment of the poorest-educated, poorest-skilled, poorest-paid workers stems from the break-up of Israel's centralized, government-and-Histadrut-dominated economy. “The government is the Number 1 enabler of this exploitation,” says Solel. Before the 1990s, most of the tens of thousands of janitors, security guards and minimum-wage clerks now working for the manpower companies would have been employed directly by government offices and large, government-owned companies. Those were long-term, safe jobs with benefits, and the workers' legal rights were strictly obeyed. But as the government began looking to cut its payroll, the manpower companies were there to offer batches of workers to fill those jobs at a much lower cost. Enormous numbers of low-wage government employees were fired, and the Histadrut didn't prevent it. Today the Histadrut gives legal advice to victims of manpower company exploitation, but does not unionize them; these jobs and the companies that monopolize them are now transient, and this labor sector is now a classically frustrating one to organize. Israel's bottom-of-the-market economy is an instance of how collusion between actively unscrupulous private companies and a passively unscrupulous public sector results in the exploitation of the weakest members of society. Manpower companies bid against one another for contracts, be it for janitorial, security or other services, and the winner is the lowest bidder. “The state wants to shrink expenses, so they also have a hand in this,” says Ophir. “They know that when they choose the lowest bid, [the savings to the state] will be made on the backs of the workers.” Manpower companies, he explains, are able to make such low bids for contracts by shorting employees out of wages and benefits. To correct this habit, the Labor Ministry's law enforcement division is negotiating with the Finance Ministry to put a limit on how low the bids for government contracts can go taking into account the companies' legal minimum labor costs. The ministry also wants to ensure that the companies being awarded these contracts are paying their employees fairly. “The idea is for an accountant to check the company's books every six months to confirm that the workers were being paid fairly, otherwise the government contract would be cancelled,” Ophir explains. “The government is the one that gives the manpower companies their power, and this power is growing. And the worst victim is the Ethiopian community, which has no political power and no connections, and which also suffers from racism and discrimination,” says Dessie. Like others in his community, the 35-year-old lawyer and social activist undertook a long odyssey filled with danger and hunger before reaching Israel in 1984, and he says the treatment of Ethiopian janitors by manpower companies leaves him with “a very bitter feeling.” Ethiopians came here expecting different treatment “from our own brothers,” he suggests. But Israel has changed, and now instead of “embracing the poor, it abuses them,” he adds. Yet bitterness is not all Dessie comes away with from this saga of injustice. “It makes me want to go after these criminals,” he says, “but in the most positive way the legal way.”
Send us your comments >> Jo, USA: As "global" as we are becoming, we still are, to a large extent, sheltered from the human stories, the abuse and exploitation of our fellow human beings. Erroneously, one would think that in a country where its citizens experienced such devastation during WWII, there would be a greater sense of justice and fairness. I guess not! William: I read this article in disgust for the mistreatment of Israel's low-income labor force and society in general. Being in the country for six years now, I've seen the corruption and cronyism reach new heights, with organized criminals becoming attached to Politicians. A recent report placed Israel after only Italy in the level of governmental corruption. With this policy Israel has, it's no wonder why the economy here is in a funk! Netanyahu's policy of providing incentives to the wealthy and business-owners to provide employment is nothing more than a Reagan-era trickle-down economic policy, which also failed. If the government is ever to keep the Israeli chutzpah from emerging in business, then it's time to introduce harsh measures of deterrence, in the form of punitive damages. The US has a great policy of this, even though it does tend to be abused by some judges. Despite this, a deterrence is needed before the business owners take notice. Remember a case a few years ago where the local cellular provider, Cellcom, raised its rates in the third quarter and charged all of its customers retroactively - to the tune of millions of shekels. They were taken to court and ordered to pay it back... without interest. When asked why they attempted this, the spokesperson callously remarked "It was worth a try." Until this ends, the economy will always be in ruins and decent people will go to sleep hungry.