The Twilight Zone / Bottom of the Food Chain

After 10, 20 years of physical labor at the Pri Hagalil canning factory, they're being laid off. They can't tell you why. Nor do they know where they'll find new work in this little town.

They sat on the asphalt road, waiting for their ride. Some were still wearing their white factory coats, while others had changed clothes and lit their post-work cigarettes. Young and old, women and men, all Russian speakers, they had left their homes in Carmiel before dawn and now were done with their shifts, 6 A.M. to 3 P.M. Before leaving the factory they went through a security check, as they do every day: A security guard in a suit and tie checked whether they were trying to smuggle any canned goods out of the plant.

They are the lowest on the food chain at this food factory, the contract workers at Pri Hagalil. Some have been employed here for two days, some for two months. They are not even bothered by the factory's subject of the day: Who is being fired now?

Amir Roth, Gideon koltaker

None of this touches them; after all, they're essentially fired every day. They even have a separate dining room at the plant: a wretched, white, empty hall with a few plastic tables and green chairs stacked beside them. Their meals cost NIS 20, while permanent workers pay only NIS 5. So some of the temps prefer to bring food from home.

Three months ago, Pri Hagalil was the flagship factory of the summer's social protest. The Noar Meretz youth movement pitched tents at the plant's entrance, and the protests and headlines did their job: The dismissals were postponed until "after the holidays."

It's now "after the holidays," and the names of the first 30 workers set to be fired were released this week. It is one thing to read about layoffs in the newspaper and it is another thing to sit facing Yael Schiatto, 45, a single mother of five who has worked at Pri Hagalil for 18 years. There are no job opportunities in Hatzor Haglilit. What are you going to do, I asked Schiatto over and over. Instead of an answer, which doesn't exist, silence hung in the air of the contract-workers' dining hall, the only place the management allowed us to meet the fired workers, and only after the plant's human resources manager and security officer told us "only five minutes" and "this is the last time a journalist is going to enter the plant's premises."

Union chairman Motti Haziza wasn't on site when we arrived at the plant. Ora Matan-Torah, a union member who had met us on our previous visit, sent three fired workers to the dining hall - Schiatto, Gideon Koltaker, a father of seven, and Amir Roth, a young man with disabilities.

Schiatto lives with her five children in an 81-square-meter apartment on Tel Hai Street in the town. Every morning, a person from the local council's welfare department comes to take the small children to school; by then, their mother has been leaning over the labeling machine for hours. The children's father left the family two years ago and moved to Kibbutz Afikim. "My work is dirty, hard, physical," says Schiatto. "The supervisor is the one who actually applies the labels, and I have to put the six-packs into the cardboard carton."

Nine hours a day, for barely NIS 4,000 a month. Before labeling, she had worked for years in packing, in Pri Hagalil's frozen food department. It is very cold there. "The manager knows I am a good worker, so two months ago he called me to transfer me to labeling," she says.

On Sunday, the plant's workers were called together for a meeting. Committee chairman Haziza said the layoffs were approaching. Everyone was pinning their hopes on him.

Two hours after that meeting, a union member told Schiatto she was on the layoff list.

"I felt my heart pounding and a kind of shock. I didn't know what to say. I was stunned. I started crying and I didn't know what to do with myself. I told the union leader that I am a single mother and he said he would make every effort to help me. Then I went back to work reluctantly. I told the supervisor I was leaving early, I went home and I didn't know how to tell my children. They sensed something was strange. I always come home with a smile and ask them how school was, and this time they asked why I was irritable. I told them I had been fired. The big ones understood, but the little ones didn't. I don't have help from anyone and I don't want help from anyone. I do things on my own."

The older children - the eldest, 22, recently returned home after her marriage failed - asked what their mother would do. She told them she didn't want to think about it, but that they would have to economize. Schiatto says she will cut back on shopping even more and her youngest son will have to forgo a capoeira class.

"He doesn't understand why we haven't signed him up yet. After all, last year I signed him up for soccer. I told him that I don't know right now and that he should try to understand. He is a small child, 7 years old, who doesn't really understand what it means when there's no money."

She has a mortgage of NIS 1,300 per month for another 15 years. She says she has managed so far, God knows how, "with an overdraft, like everyone." The night after she was fired she could hardly sleep. "What will happen to me and what will happen to the children, and how will we get through the month?"

She has no idea when the dismissal will take effect, though she thinks it will be as soon as this month. She repeats, "I have no idea what I will do. I would rather not think about it, because I don't know where to start thinking."

The plant's chairman and CEO Oshik Efraim drives a black Mercedes, which is parked in the plant's lot. No one told Schiatto or any of the other laid-off workers why they in particular were being fired. Schiatto says they fired her because she is a permanent employee.

"They don't look at the person's face. It's like a lottery. They don't think about the person's performance. No one is immune. I hope Motti will help us. We'll demonstrate, we'll do everything we can. This is my second home. I love working here. We've gotten used to getting up early, we've gotten used to this whole routine."

Nine people, 70 square meters

Last week Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu visited Hatzor Haglilit and promised he would make it a city. He didn't visit Pri Hagalil, nor did he mention it.

Gideon Koltaker, 50, also lives in Hatzor Haglilit. His wife is ultra-Orthodox and he is strictly observant. The family of nine lives in a 70-square-meter apartment on Hage'ulim Street. He has been making soups for 20 years, mixing the ingredients and packing them into bags.

"There is a cement mixer and we pour the ingredients into the container. Constantly pouring, with a jackhammer. Hard physical labor. Everything is frozen and I have to work with the jackhammer. It makes a huge racket."

He takes home NIS 4,200 a month, which must cover electricity, telephone bills, municipal tax, phone cards for the children, schools, yeshivas. "And what do I have left?"

The union told him a month ago that he was on the list; he went to a pre-layoff hearing and passed. Now he's on the block again.

"I said to them: Fire me, but someone in heaven is watching everyone, passes judgment on everyone, and in the end everyone pays. I told them they shouldn't be thinking about hurting people who are so weak, but they are trying to make us despair. Bibi [Netanyahu] is already an honorary citizen of Hatzor but we're not worth anything to him. Get up out of your chair and help us. Can people live this way? No. The bosses don't look at anyone, those who have been with the plant for 20, 30 years. They fire whomever they feel like.

"I want to see one government minister try to get by on our wages for a week. One minister, one week. We aren't asking for handouts. We want to earn an honest living. I don't know what I am going to do. Who's going to hire me at my age? No one. That's it, what can I tell you?"

But he isn't the despairing sort. "If you are sad, you fall even further into the abyss. My wife, who is more religious than I am, says everything is from heaven and we just need to make an effort."

He hasn't told his children. "Things are difficult in any case, so why make it worse for them? I always try to make them happy, even though things are hard, even though I can't really make them happy. I've always tried to keep them from being sad and I always say to them: Everything will be fine."

Silence hung in the air of the dining hall.

'I pay all the bills'

Amir Roth was born in Hatzor 26 years ago. He is disabled . His father is a civilian employee of the Israel Defense Forces; he has health problems and is on the verge of retirement. His mother has cancer. Roth helps support them. "I pay all the bills, the phone bill, Internet, I help them with everything," he says.

He has been working at Pri Hagalil since 2008. The National Insurance Institute covers part of his wage, which is NIS 3,900 a month. Before then he attended a special education school in Kiryat Shmona. He works with Koltaker making soups.

Koltaker is his best friend. "I love the work very much. The company, my friends and I also love my bosses. I have friends in packing and I also love the girls here. Now I might lose all this.

He has been called in for a hearing. "I don't know what to say and I don't know what the boss will say. I'm in shock, total shock. I'm disappointed with the management and with the government, which isn't helping us. I have debts to the grocery store and a loan from the bank, and I don't know what I will do without a salary. My father needs a machine to breathe and we don't have any way to pay for it. I don't know what I will do. I need work."

And again silence hung in the dining hall.