Supermarket baron Rami Levy says that if the state wants him to rescue Off Haemek, it should inject NIS 10 million into the poultry-processing firm. Off Haemek must also collect NIS 25 million it's owed, he insists, as dozens of Off Haemek workers protested yesterday in front of the Knesset. Some of them spent the previous nine days barricaded inside the factory.

Attending an emergency meeting yesterday to discuss the company's dire straits, Levy told the Knesset Finance Committee that he is willing to pay NIS 10 million for Off Haemek and invest another NIS 15 million to NIS 20 million in its development.

Off Haemek owes suppliers and creditors NIS 47 million, the Finance Committee was told. At least some workers are getting money; Off Haemek paid NIS 350,000 in February salaries to its 200 workers. The salaries were financed by selling most of the plant's remaining stock of slaughtered birds. But some employees say they weren't paid.

Abed Alhadi Sami, a father of nine who has worked at the factory for 34 years, said workers had received salary slips but no money.

At the protest, workers carried signs with messages such as "Management with a chicken's brain" and "We're being pounded like schnitzels." According to Bracha Shoshan, who has worked for Off Haemek for 37 years since she was 19, "We can't be thrown to the dogs after 37 years."

In any case, Levy's offer means that at least NIS 27 million worth of debt will remain unsettled, even if the government agrees to inject NIS 10 million into the company.

A spokesman for the Finance Ministry who participated in the meeting said the ministry would study the offer. But he declined further comment.

A number of committee members, however, objected to state funding for the plant, saying alternatives should be found to rehabilitate the business.

Off Haemek owes NIS 12 million to the Poultry Breeders Association, an alliance of northern moshav and kibbutz poultry farmers. Another NIS 25 million of the debt is attributed to a company owned by Amnon Ariel, which recently acquired a 75% stake in Off Haemek.

The secretary of the Poultry Breeders Association, Yaakov Cohen, proposed to the committee that the government provide guarantees or other special assistance to build a whole new slaughterhouse. That could be done at a different, less expensive location, with industry representatives helping, he said.

Building an entirely new plant would create jobs for workers and poultry breeders. The millions owed to the Poultry Breeders Association, Cohen warns, could cause the collapse of the breeders' businesses, who themselves owe the banks.

Finance Committee chairman Reuven Rivlin said the committee has to intervene in the Off Haemek crisis. But he warned that the committee must take the state budget into account.

Rivlin noted that unemployment benefits for the 200 unemployed Off Haemek workers would cost the state NIS 25 million, money better spent on ensuring their continued employment, he said.

A senor consultant to the chairman of the Histadrut Labor Federation told the committee that a review of Off Haemek's books suggests that eliminating past debts would leave the company economically viable.

He added that the Histadrut would strive for the plant to stay in operation to protect its employees. "There are other bidders for the plant in addition to Rami Levy," he told the committee.