This is supposed to be one of the happiest times of Yitzhak Forman’s life. His daughter, Maayan, his pride and joy, who once held the Israeli record in the high jump and was European champion, is getting married.
“How can I be happy?” he asked yesterday, as he stood in the middle of Tziporit junction in the Lower Galilee with dozens of his colleagues from glass manufacturer Phoenicia America-Israel, who were holding protest signs, surrounded by the thick smoke from burning tires.
The workers were blocking Route 77, which runs from the Golani junction to Tiberias, causing an unexpected traffic tie-up. Some drivers expressed support for the demonstrators, while others were furious and ignored the protesters’ plight. Within minutes there were altercations between those driving to their places of work and those who were on the verge of losing theirs.
The Phoenicia workers, whose plant is in the nearby Tziporit industrial zone, were told yesterday by management that if the government doesn’t help the distressed manufacturer by the end of the month, the huge furnace that transforms the raw materials into glass would be shut down. Shutting down the furnace, the heart of the factory, would be a sign that Phoenicia’s activity was halting and that the employees would be fired.
“Closing the plant is death,” said Forman, looking at the factory’s huge chimney, which can be seen from a distance and which until recently was viewed by the entire region as a symbol of economic security and job stability for those privileged enough to work there.
“To work for Phoenicia was considered an honor. Everyone wanted to work here,” said Itzik Maman, another Phoenicia employee.
Phoenicia, founded 78 years ago, employs 400 people, some of whom are grandchildren of the original workers. The plant is also the primary source of income for dozens of suppliers and service providers.
About a month ago, the employees were told the firm’s debts had ballooned to NIS 320 million. A major reason for the plant’s difficulties is a delay in connecting the factory to natural gas infrastructure, which is forcing it to use more expensive fuel oil. This is costing the plant, which has a turnover of $80 million, an additional $15 million a year. The European slowdown, which has affected orders, is also playing a role, as is stiff competition from Asia.
Both Maman and Forman are typical of many Phoenicia employees, hired decades ago, back when the plant was still in Haifa and manual labor was still considered an honorable way to earn a living. Maman, 53, a resident of the Haifa Bay suburbs, came to Phoenicia “practically from the induction center [after his army discharge],” as he put it.
“People said, ‘Don’t pass up the opportunity to get into Phoenicia.’ It was considered one of Israel’s best factories,” Maman added. “Incidentally, even now we are among the best factories in the world in terms of quality and innovation.”
Waiting for gas
Maman started as a production-line worker and worked his way up to his current position as domestic and international shipping manager. His son-in-law and nephew also work at the plant, thinking it would be a secure place to work, with opportunities for advancement.
“Now I regret bringing them here. It upsets me,” Maman said. “The fight to save this plant will be tough. I’ll go on a hunger strike if I have to.”
Forman, 55, has worked at the plant for 27 years.
“I’m not exaggerating when I say I gave my life to this place,” he said. “I work here 12 hours a day. I’m here more than I’m with my family.”
Forman also started on the production line and advanced to be a warehouse and fulfillment manager. “There’s no way this plant is going to close,” he said. “We’ll fight with all our might. If we have to we’ll block the entrance to Bibi’s house,” he added, using Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu’s nickname.
According to data released yesterday by Phoenicia CEO Eran Haimovich, around a third of the plant’s expenses are for energy. “Mazut oil has gone up some 30 percent over the past few years, while the global price of glass has gone down 40 percent,” he said.
“The Israeli government promised to bring gas here, and it’s been delayed and no one can commit to a date. All our competitors all over the world use natural gas,” Haimovich said. “If within a week the prime minister doesn’t intervene to fix the situation we’ve gotten into, we’ll have to cool the furnace at the end of the month. That means the company is shutting down.”
The company wants the government to cover the additional costs of using oil − a gap of NIS 5 million a month − until the gas infrastructure is in place. The gas pipeline currently reaches to Afula, some 30 kilometers from Tziporit.
The workers are represented by the Histadrut labor federation, which has also asked the government to come to the factory’s aid. The Histadrut argues that the cost of extending the pipeline is minimal compared to the damage that would be caused by increasing unemployment in the region.
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