The Israeli government knows just what to do

Oppressive government policies must end but can our leaders come up with a plan that does not comprise a few minimal moves?

Jerusalem Tent 311 (photo credit: Melanie Lidman)
Jerusalem Tent 311
(photo credit: Melanie Lidman)
More and more people are joining the social protests that have swept the country in recent weeks. The housing-market victims have been joined by doctors and social workers, parents who cannot bear the economic burden of raising a family, school and kindergarten teachers, labor unions, local authorities, water-meter victims, Russians, Arabs and Beduin. Numerous groups in the periphery – from Eilat to Kiryat Shmona – have erected protest tents.
This is no accident. A clear line connects them all.
Three decades of budget cuts and extreme privatization policies by the government have made Israel impossible to live in respectably. With security issues and the global trend of unruly free-market economy dictating policies, it was rather painless for our governments to shirk their responsibilities to devise socially equitable policies, and too easy to choke social services.
In the housing market, the state has been selling land to entrepreneurs for years without presenting any policy or guidelines about what should be built there. For their part, the contractors build luxurious apartments, while the Israel Lands Authority’s construction tenders do not specify a single apartment as “affordable housing” or “public housing,” regardless of the letter of the law.
At the same time, the Construction and Housing Ministry’s budget was slashed such that since 2002, it has lost some 79 percent of the funds earmarked for mortgage aid. Public housing apartments were sold to private owners, and no new apartments were built in their stead. Funds that the state hands out in housing aid to entitled individuals were slashed in half in 2003 and have lost another 30% since.
As a result, many population groups have been left without affordable housing, and the number of people who live in an apartment they own is constantly falling (from 73% in 1995 to 66% in 2008). Social polarization is increasing, because instead of mixedpopulation neighborhoods, only homogeneous neighborhoods for the wealthy are being built.
IN THE employment market, the state exposed us all to particularly wild terms. It failed to introduce a policy for improving wages or enforcing labor laws, including the Minimum Wages Act. For example, the Industry, Trade and Labor Ministry currently employs around 80 inspectors whose job is to make sure employees do not violate labor laws.
They cover some 2.8 million employees, but according to OECD standards, there should be one inspector for every 10,000 hired workers. Thus, Israel suffers from a shortage of at least 200 inspectors – nearly three times their current number. Furthermore, their enforcement operations are inefficient and examine only the “blue collar” market, enforcing no labor laws in other fields where laborers’ rights are grossly violated.
The vast majority of Israelis feel this personally: In 2008, some 60% of employees earned less than NIS 6,389 a month, which is 75% of the average wage in the market; and 40% earned less than half the average wage. The 2009 Poverty Report revealed that half of the country’s poor come from working families.
Thus, in recent years, labor does not necessarily save one from poverty. The profile of the Israeli poor is not an unemployed person, but one who has a job and post-high-school education.
The situations in the housing and labor markets are just two of many examples of the results of an oppressive government policy that has now driven us into the streets. Education, health, housing, employment and social welfare are not consumer goods, but basic rights to which each of us is entitled. There are many ways they can be offered to the public, but abandoning the people to free-market forces is not one of them.
The government must assume responsibility. It should not wait for the demonstrators to present their demands, expecting to create a cheap and laughable media spin. The government knows exactly what it must do, what budgets to cut, and which social laws it froze and rejected – the affordable housing bill, raising the minimum wages, and allocating resources for supervising the labor market, for example. It is time the government came up with a plan that does not comprise a few minimal moves (although that, too, should be done for the immediate term), but one that is at least as comprehensive as the budget cuts and privatization moves that helped Israel set new records in poverty rates and social gaps.
The writer is the director of the Social and Economic Rights Department in the Association for Civil Rights in Israel