The Nazareth Labor Court ruled on Wednesday that an employer-employee relationship exists between a kibbutz and a member who was fired, so the kibbutz must pay the member compensation. The ruling could have major implications for labor relations in privatized kibbutzim.

The court made its precedent-setting ruling in the case of Avi Ben-Aharon, a member of the privatized Kibbutz Tel Yosef in the Jezreel Valley. Ben-Aharon had been the manager of the kibbutz fishery since 1988. In 2001, he won a tender to operate the fishery and had received a salary as an employee there since that time. In 2011, Ben-Aharon was dismissed, and he sued the kibbutz for compensation.

Judge Vered Shefer noted that similar suits brought over the past decade had been rejected by labor courts because their rulings dealt with kibbutzim that were still collectives and had not undergone privatization.

The judge said Kibbutz Tel Yosef had changed its modus operandi and was now privatized, which constitutes "a far-reaching change in comparison to the traditional kibbutz in which members worked according to their ability and according to what the kibbutz decided, and received equal pay without reference to their work.

"Thus, there is no longer place to test the relations between the member and the kibbutz against the backdrop of the cooperative society where there was complete equality," the judge said, and no longer any basis to claim that employer-employee relations did not exist in the case of a member and the privatized kibbutz.

Another kibbutznik who could be affected by the Nazareth Labor Court's decision is Henry Alkaslasi of Kibbutz Ein Hashofet on Mount Carmel. Ein Hashofet is one of the few kibbutzim that still marks the workers' holiday of May 1. On Wednesday, too, a red flag flew in the plaza in front of the dining room, as it once did at all kibbutzim.

Alkaslasi, a member of the Histadrut labor federation's leadership, has been trying for over a decade to ensure the workers rights of kibbutz members, to get his fellow kibbutzniks to join the Histadrut, and to establish workers committees in kibbutzim. But the results have not been encouraging. At a meeting he called last week at the Afula Labor Council, only 12 people showed up. And so for Alkaslasi, the "Tel Yosef precedent" is an appropriate response to the need for kibbutz members' rights as workers.

'People don't want to fight'

He said that while the problem does not exist in all kibbutzim, there are some "where the kibbutz member can be hurt" by the kibbutz establishment. "He will mostly close himself off in his room and not fight. People don't want to fight the kibbutz and there is no one to protect them. Sometimes they have no power or means. People become transparent and everything is measured by money," Alkaslasi said.

"We made the mistake of thinking that the kibbutz will protect the member all the time. It turns out that every member needs an 'insurance policy' and people who are members of the Histadrut will have proper protection," he asserted.

Alkaslasi said he sees the ruling of the Nazareth Labor Court as the opportunity for kibbutz members to start demanding their rights as employees. However, attorney Miki Drori, head of the Kibbutz Movement's legal department, sees things entirely differently.

"The precedent-setting ruling will be detrimental to kibbutz members, because it might compromise the mutual responsibility kibbutz members have toward each other in very broad areas, such as toward people with special needs, and mutual aid," Drori said. The mutual responsibility standards in effect in kibbutzim are broader than labor laws, he added.

But Alkaslasi said the social safety net in the privatized kibbutzim "changes with the spirit of the times and what's in the till." Members who work for the kibbutz itself do not have all their rights, he said, for example a pension, which members working for employers outside the kibbutz have.

Drori countered that several mechanisms protect kibbutz members, among them monitoring by the Kibbutz Movement itself, and that kibbutzim cannot legally change the conditions of their social safety net without the authority of the registrar of cooperative associations.