End the cynical game

The government can start fighting poverty by paying its employees who are not even eligible for welfare.

tsunami victim 88 (photo credit: )
tsunami victim 88
(photo credit: )
The prime minister recently announced an offensive on poverty. We don't know how he plans to go about it, but we can make one suggestion. It's high time the government ended the cynical game played by some of this country's most delinquent municipalities - those which seek to balance their books by not paying workers who show up daily and do their jobs but have nothing to show for their trouble. These employees are rendered the poorest of the poor, as they cannot even claim welfare or unemployment benefits. Perhaps by belatedly addressing their torment the government can demonstrate the seriousness of its intentions toward all have-nots. Rehabilitation programs intended to get these municipalities out of the red earned some of them a bailout from the Treasury. Indeed the number of offending councils has dropped. But some have regressed into recidivism, others violated the terms of the rehabilitation deals and some never subscribed to them. A year ago the National Labor Court labeled this "a scandalous travesty." The initial fault wasn't that of the central government but of miserably managed councils, some of them altogether corrupt. In Arab authorities especially, there is a chronic reluctance to collect local rates, a fact which leaves the municipal coffers in permanent deficit. However, the mayors and their cronies are always paid - and quite handsomely. It's their employees who aren't. Presumably the logic is that the plight of non-earning wage-earners would be so embarrassing that the central government would pick up the tab. In other words, this became a recurrent pattern of extortion. Right now, some 5,700 employees in 31 local authorities are owed a full-month's wage, 2,500 in 21 localities are owed pay for two months, 1,500 in 10 councils haven't been paid for three months, 1,200 in eight towns are owned for four months work and 350 in two towns haven't been paid for at least six straight months. Those last two towns are Mash'had and Taiba. In the latter, some employees haven't seen a paycheck for nine months and in the former, incredibly, a small number haven't been paid since 2002. In all, 24 of 39 Arab local councils and municipalities do not pay their workers regularly. Some 70 percent of Arab municipal employees - 3,600 of 5,000 - aren't paid on time or paid fully. A more frequent ploy is payment for a month and then no payment for a while again. This exists not only in the municipal sector. Religious council employees are often treated the same way, if not worse. They and their families literally go hungry. They lack the wherewithal to cover grocery bills and other basic expenses. Technically they are free to quit but are effectively in bondage. They dare not leave their non-paying jobs for fear of losing back pay owed them or severance pay they'd be denied if they resign. Hence these workers continue to toil daily without making a living. Among them are grave diggers, undertakers, marriage registrars and kashrut supervisors. Like the unpaid municipal workers, they receive no remuneration for keeping their part of the bargain, almost altruistically, while their employers fail to pass the most basic test of decency. No one should be expected to work for nothing - that's elementary. In the religious councils' case, the Prime Minister's Office, which took over the duties of the defunct Religious Affairs Ministry, is responsible for 40% of the payroll. The rest comes from often hard-strapped local authorities, which barely manage to pay their own employees. It's high time the prime minister paid attention to all this abuse. It is also high time he instructs the interior minister to use the power vested in him and sack any mayor whose conduct is flawed. Cities which routinely drive themselves into the red cannot expect to transfer their financial burdens to all Israeli taxpayers collectively, regardless of where they reside and how much they pay their own municipality. We are all footing bills for which we shouldn't be accountable. Yet we all collectively shouldn't tolerate incomprehensible hardheartedness and hypocrisy, whereby employees - from clerical staff to garbage collectors - are shamelessly used as pawns to shake down the government. Such injustice shouldn't be suffered by a healthy society.