agrexco - Haaretz - July 20 2011
The protest outside the Agrexco office yesterday: ‘The government has a responsibility. Bibi, step in!’ Photo by Haaretz
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About 300 Agrexco employees barricaded themselves inside the company's Tel Aviv office on Hahashmonaim Street yesterday while others protested outside. The workers were protesting against the government, the Finance Ministry, and the company's court-appointed trustee manager, Shlomo Nass, who had said 200 workers had to go on unpaid leave or be fired.

Shaul Tzivoni, head of the Agrexco union, said that Nass' decision would be heard in court today - and that the workers would be protesting again.

If the workers are fired, said Tzivoni, they won't receive the severance compensation they're owed under their collective bargaining agreement, due to the company's shaky financial situation. The contract states fired workers are due 48% of their monthly salary per year of employment, which is well below the 200% norm in Israel's civil service, the union chief said.

If all the company's employees - 350 in Israel and 180 abroad - are fired, none are likely to receive severance, Tzivoni said. "The treasury has to intervene and stick its hand in its pocket," he said, adding that if the workers were offered severance conditions in keeping with civil service norms, they might agree to efficiency measures.

Tzivoni said he didn't understand why the government was "choosing not to take a stand" about Agrexco, which has been around for more than 56 years and played a big role in promoting Israeli agricultural exports. The workers accused the government of "abandoning" them.

As for unpaid leave, that is tantamount to dismissal, especially as no date had been cited for the workers to return to work, said Tzivoni. They would be left hanging with no salary and no severance, he said.

These very workers had agreed to contribute NIS 2 million to a kitty to keep the company operational during the stay of proceedings, and now the company wants to fire them in order to keep that kitty from going into deficit, said Tzivoni. It's adding insult to injury, he said.

Yesterday representatives of the Finance Ministry and Histadrut labor federation met but failed to achieve a meeting of minds over severance compensation. The union representatives were demanding increased provisions.

At this point, the workers don't intend to strike and shut down the company's operations, Tzivoni said, but 80 of the 200 will continue barricading themselves in the company's Tel Aviv headquarters.

Meanwhile, a representative of farmers' organizations yesterday - growers of fruit, vegetables, herbs and flowers - told Nass that they accepted his offer to continue letting Agrexco market their produce, and would cooperate with the company during the stay of proceedings. They would also cooperate with any potential buyer, they announced.

For a week now, Nass has been working on obtaining the farmers' acquiescence to giving them shares in Agrexco after the company's sale to a new investor (if and when ), in exchange for their commitment to use Agrexco to market their produce. Their assured cooperation would make the company more attractive to potential buyers, said sources near Nass.