Social workers protest: 'We demand to work with dignity'

Over 10,000 social workers launch nation-wide strike over low pay, reject offer for differential increases in salaries: "We are a united front."

Some 400 people on Sunday demonstrated in Beersheva as part of a nationwide social workers strike over the government’s failure to meet their demands for increased pay and improved work conditions.
Fifty demonstrators also protested outside of the Prime Minister's Office in Jerusalem, carrying signs reading "We demand to work with dignity."
Speaking about the strike to high school students in Mevasseret Zion, Kadima leader Tzipi Livni said: "We are talking about workers, generally female, who chose a profession with a salary lower than that of other professions. Those who pay the price are those exact female workers and also every child who is currently waiting [for welfare services] due to the strike and every parent [without custody] who needs to see their child but can't. This is a phenomenon that needs to be dealt with."
Earlier Sunday, Deputy Finance Minister Yitzhak Cohen offered the social workers differential increases to their salaries based on their income level. He said if the social workers agree to the proposal, the strike would end "within minutes," and will prevent damage from being done to those who need welfare assistance, reported Army Radio.
A number of social workers said in response that they hope the union declined the offer, saying that such a compromise does not meet their demands. They said "We don't want to have a situation where their will be a division between rich social workers and poor ones. We started the struggle as a united front."
Over 10,000 social workers from the public sector participated in the open-ended strike starting Sunday morning.
In the wake of the strike, the country's welfare services opened a special committee to deal only with urgent cases, Army Radio reported Sunday.
“The fate of hundreds of children at risk, elderly people, the disabled and the sick will now be the responsibility of the Israeli government and the Finance Minister,” Itzhik Perry, head of the Social Workers Union, said in a statement on Saturday night after last-minute attempts to avoid a strike failed. “We don’t want to hurt the weakest populations in Israel’s society, the clients of the welfare services, but we now have no choice.”
Negotiations between the social workers and the Treasury have been going on for more than six months, with the recently appointed Minister of Welfare and Social Services Moshe Kahlon stepping in Friday to negotiate with Finance Minister Yuval Steinitz on their behalf. As yet, the talks have yielded no results.
A statement from the Finance Ministry released on Saturday night discounted many of the social workers’ claims and outlined the package that had been offered to the union, showing that most would benefit from a NIS 1,000 monthly addition to their salaries.
“The bottom line is that the offer made by the state is fair and does justice to those earning low salaries,” the ministry’s statement read. “It is a shame that this battle is presented as one for those earning a low wage, when in the negotiating room the demands are quite opposite.”
The Treasury said the sticking point was over further increases for those in the highest earnings bracket and not for those lower down the pay scale. It also discounted claims made by the Social Workers Union that 27 percent of social workers earn minimum wage, saying instead that last year the average social worker’s salary was closer to NIS 7,800 a month.
Meanwhile, the statement pointed to three pay increases received by social workers over the past 13 years.
A spokesman for the Social Worker’s Union responded: “The Treasury continues to publish its lies and disinformation to the public. In the six months since the negotiations started with the Finance Ministry, the Social Workers Union has tried to reach an agreement that those who earn the lowest wages will get the higher increase and those with higher salaries will get less of an increase.
“Our basic demand is that the overall structure of pay scales is revised, but until today the Treasury has not informed us what exactly will be the overall addition to the salaries and, again, is just throwing sand in the public’s eyes,” he said, adding that pay rises over the past decade were part of overall increases for all those working in the public sector.
Among the services to be disrupted by a strike would be social welfare services in the municipalities, including treatment of at-risk children and divorcing couples, medical facilities such as hospitals and health clinics, social services provided to courts, assistance at family welfare centers and civil services in the Ministry of Welfare and Social Affairs.
A study released by the ministry last January reported that more than 433,000 families, or one in every five households, received treatment from social welfare services in 2009, with the figures pointing to a dramatic increase over the past decade in the number of people needing help for a wide range of debilitating social problems. The Social Workers Union estimated on Saturday night that a strike would affect roughly a quarter of the population.
Over the weekend, Kahlon was interviewed by Channel 2’s Meet the Press where he estimated that the strike would not last more than two or three days.
“Social workers should trust that I and the Treasury are doing everything so that Israel does not have first class and second social workers,” he said.
His comments were met with criticism, however, on the specially created Facebook page that has united some 5,000 social workers countrywide over the past few weeks leading up to the strike.
“Kahlon is a bit disappointing, because we want his support, but we must remember he is from the Likud, and not from a social-democrat party,” said one social worker on the site. “We’re going to strike tomorrow and we’re more ready for this than we’ll ever be!” A statement released by the union said that protests would be held in Beersheba and in the North on Sunday to express anger over negotiation failures and, together with the Histadrut labor federation, the social workers would operation a hot line (1- 700-700-331) for emergency cases only. A committee will decide on each case on an individual bases.
According to information from the Social Workers Union, there are roughly 15,000 active social workers in Israel, with 10,000 of them working in the public sector and a further 5,000 in the private sector. Even though most have academic degrees, the base pay for a new social worker in the public sector is no more than NIS 2,300, with income support and other fiscal benefits bumping it up slightly. After two or three years in the trade, social workers usually earn no more than NIS 5,800 a month.
In the private sector, they earn even less. The pay scale has not been adjusted for more than 17 years, and roughly one in three social workers receives income support after being paid minimum wage.