A journey into the heart of darkness of Israel's Employment Service
There is nothing quite as soul-draining as a trip to the unemployment office, in light of increased joblessness and expected mass layoffs around the country.
Reports of increased unemployment and expected mass layoffs in the telecommunications sector have led me to the Tel Aviv offices of the Israel Employment Service, located in a high-rise government office building not far from Defense Ministry headquarters. I get off the bus and trudge across a sun-scorched multiple intersection, then stand in line waiting for my turn to pass a security check at the entrance.
Ahead of me are a few Africans migrants, apparently here to renew their residence permits at the Interior Ministry offices. One tries to push ahead in the line, irking a security guard. “Don't push,” the exasperated guard says. “Next time I'll kill you." Despite the severity of the words, no one treats it as a threat or deigns to speak up. Everyone, it appears, just wants to be done with it.
Inside, I go up an escalator, pass a store selling flip-flops for NIS 10 a pair, go up a second escalator and reach another, stricter security check. This time there are metal detectors and a very long line, roughly 100 people standing more or less in order. Most are headed for the Employment Service offices.
Behind us are biometric check-in stations for those unemployed who've already registered and must sign in once a month to get government unemployment compensation. They simply place a finger on the device's scanner; if there no appropriate job opening in the system, you receive a note with a picture of a house, indicating that you have checked in for the month and can return home. My long wait gives me plenty of time to survey the unemployed putting their thumbs on the scanner -- a young woman, perhaps 30, with an anxious-looking face, a young man wearing kids' athletic socks, a mother with her daughter, both licking ice cream cones.
I pass through the security check with ease, but the woman next to me, in a thin dress, is at a complete loss when she has to pass through the beeping metal detector again and again. Then on to an elevator up to the employment office; on the wall, a note says it's forbidden to use cellphones, which would create a microwave effect inside the elevator's walls.
"Screw the entire bureau. May their name be obliterated. I'm too disgusted to sign," curses an old man in the elevator. Why didn't he use the biometric check-in, I ask. The angry gent says that there's a problem with his finger and the device doesn't register.
I show my ID to the security guard at the entrance to the office; he hands me a piece of paper with my queue number written in pen and wishes me good luck with what I interpret as a sense of pity. Most of those who actually come into the bureau are there for the first time. There are almost 80 people. The guard says that in Jerusalem at the start of last month, the line at the employment office reached all the way from the office to the light rail tracks, a couple of blocks away.
The office is a long space with cubicles at one end and chairs of waiting clients on the other, separated by a low partition. You sign your name on a list on the wall of the cubicle to which you have been assigned and await your turn. When I arrive, a blonde woman of around 40 with thin heels and a gold-colored belt, who looks like a former model, is kissing a Book of Psalms as her number comes up. She takes a seat in the cubicle. Beyond her, through the window, you can see the grayish shape of Defense Ministry headquarters.
A fight breaks out between a young guy who signed his name on the list and Aviv, a tattooed man who claims he was there first. A woman next me is content filling out a Sudoku puzzle in a freebie newspaper, which turns out to be very popular with those at the people at the Employment Service. A woman with a Russian accent, wearing a red blouse, tells me she has worked in cleaning since she immigrated to Israel from Ukraine, but now wants to find employment in her profession. When I ask what it is, she tells me that she sews fur. When I say there's no chance of finding employment in that, she replies that she will try to get a job in a doll factory in Holon, now that she knows Hebrew better.
There seems to be a great deal of tension outside a position on my right. People are standing around impatiently next to a painting of a flamingo. A security guard is summoned to another station, to deal with a handicapped man who is refusing to leave. A haggard-looking Employment Bureau worker stares angrily through the window at the Azrieli Mall across the street till the man organizes his papers and his crutches and leaves, carrying a tattered bag with the inscription Leumi Gold/Silver.
It appears to be a dramatic moment. But what's really ugly is the monotony, the tired look and bitter boredom of the people waiting in line, the hatred of being stuck in a hall where the square white spotlights are punctuated by round white ones.
One man tells me that he was was laid off from a metal factory, because there was no work. That causes me to reflect on my own fading world, the expected dismissal of 2,000 workers at Ma'ariv, cutbacks at Yedioth Ahronoth and Globes, and the situation at Haaretz, where no one knows who will get the sack. In another month or two, people I know will be coming here -- and not on some work assignment. Employers always prefer to save layoffs for after the holidays. Somehow, letting people go before them is considered much worse.
I strike a conversation with a man in a Chicago Bulls hat. For 30 years he hauled vegetables at Tnuva, a job he hated. "You don't have a life," he says. "You arrive at work at midnight and return home at eight in the morning. They tell you, go bring some crates, lift 30 boxes and clean up the warehouse – all for little more than minimum wage."
His dream is modest: work as a security guard or an usher at soccer games.
"What's the problem with being a guard? Boredom. But carrying vegetables isn't something for someone my age. I'm another 12 years away from my pension."
There's a scream from the next cubicle. An Employment Bureau worker is angry. Someone doesn't want to take the job he's been offered, at an unrealistic minimum wage. "You should be ashamed," the staffer says. "Do what needs to be done."
I am reminded of the brief period when I was between jobs, during an earlier round of media industry cutbacks (apparently due to increased paper prices). I came here to sign for unemployment benefits and was handled, I think, by the guy who looked out at the Azrieli building while they evicted the man with crutches. Though I'm here on on assignment, I worry that someone might recognize me. I understand fully that an unemployed person isn't really to blame for his status, but still fear that something from this place will stick on me.
The place is full of contradictory images. On the walls, some employees have hung drawings made by their kids, in kindergarten. Others stuck up photos of expensive cars or fancy apartments, the kind nobody who comes here will ever live but maybe will clean. A religious woman is arguing with a young man with dreadlocks, who she accuses of cutting in line. After identifying me as a journalist, a bald man wearing green Crocs whistles to himself. Women who look like they are in mourning and have no hope, obsessively arrange their hair. Young guys strut around, as if they were not entering capitalism's cult of the impure.
The job offers aren't particularly attractive. I remember when I was laid off. At the meeting where I was pink-slipped, the editor, a good man, felt guilty and began to vomit. A year later, when he got the ax, he was offered a job as a towel folder.
It seems to everyone here that the people who come to this place are not worthy of respect, even from their unemployed counterparts. People stand next to the cubicles where private conversations are supposed to take place, everyone listens in.
I'm in a bad mood when I leave. Outside, a security guard plays with a flower horn fish that staring out at at him from inside a large aquarium. A sign on the pane says it's the same species that was on the set of the "Big Brother" TV show. The guard touches the glass, beckoning the fish to approach. All of a sudden he bangs on the glass, scaring the fish away.