Working in Israel: My dirty laundrette

A rare occurrence: worker solidarity in the face of exploitation.

Workers 88 (photo credit: )
Workers 88
(photo credit: )
I'm pleased to be able to share some good news with Jerusalem Post readers about a rare occurrence in the ongoing struggle of workers in Israel for a decent wage and basic benefits. It is rare not because the circumstances around it are rare, but because workers seldom have the support and encouragement to go through such struggle. It is even more extraordinary in that it has met with partial success. An unusual cooperation between workers, Kav LaOved - The Workers Hotline - and local trade unions allowed workers to stand for what they deserve. The work place in question is a big industrial launderette, which provides services to several hospitals and to the IDF. The workers work around 9 hours a day. They are not provided with protective clothing, so they suffer irritation to the face and hands and respiratory problems. Salaries are around half the legal minimum wage. In order to cover that up, the factory falsely reports the workers as working less hours than they actually do. Many of the workers must work 7 days a week. Those who insist on taking a day off are punished by not being allowed to work for several hours or days. Sick workers must come and prove their sickness under pain of not being assigned work or of being dismissed. They must work on holidays. They do not receive severance pay when they are dismissed. The male workers have no access to a lavatory. The women must share a single booth. There isn't even cold drinking water in the summer. But what really set the workers off was the withheld pay. By April they were owed three months' wages. On April 12 the women workers went on a spontaneous four day strike. Eleven of them were fired. ON APRIL 23 Kav LaOved sent a formal letter to the management on behalf of the workers. The management started terrorizing the workers, threatening them with dismissal, and trying to make them sign documents stating that they were not represented by Kav LaOved. On May 2, 15 more workers were dismissed without receiving their due wages or severance pay. The second strike started on May 17. This time it was the men who went on strike. The workers asked the Histadrut to intervene, but the Histadrut refused, because the workers were not Histadrut members. Local trade unions and Kav LaOved took upon themselves the mission of legal representation. The management tried to lure three workers back to work by paying them their due wages. The workers refused - it was either all or none. Five days into the strike, local security was called to disperse the striking workers. The workers retreated to the gates of the factory's town. On May 23 a Ministry of Labor inspector came to meet the workers. Later in the afternoon the workers, including those who had been dismissed, received a month's due wages. The strike ended with four strike leaders dismissed. The dismissed workers reported that they did not regret their struggle. SOME achievements can be noted. Most workers recently received all their withheld wages. The fictitious "workers union tax" (NIS 25 per month) is no longer deducted from workers' salaries. The factory has agreed to pay recuperation and sick leave, and to improve its policy concerning vacations. But even with all this under their belt, the workers still do not receive legally binding minimum wages. Some of the dismissed workers found jobs in another industrial launderette. They report that their work terms there are just as bad. This is the story of some of the people who clean up after us. Without the laundry services of these workers and of their colleagues our hospitals and army simply could not function. You may be wondering how such a gross violation of legal and worker rights can be tolerated in Israel, 2006. Oh, did I forget to mention that the workers are West Bank Palestinians, employed in an Israeli owned factory in the settlement Ma'aleh Adumim? But then again, that couldn't be the explanation. Since if it were, we wouldn't have so many migrant and Israeli citizens forced to work under similar conditions as well. The writer is a board member of worker rights NGO Kav LaOved, and a lecturer at the Academic College of Tel-Aviv-Jaffa.