The social workers' union has announced that it plans to begin an open-ended strike on Sunday.

The strike will involve 10,000 social workers employed by government agencies. It was called over the union's demand for a substantial hike in social workers' wages.

Social Affairs Minister Moshe Kahlon and Finance Minister Yuval Steinitz met last night in an effort to head off the strike. Kahlon expressed support for the social workers, saying they deserved proper compensation.

If the strike goes ahead, it will impact numerous people around the country. Juvenile and adult probation officers will not submit reports to the courts, which could resulting in criminals being released from detention. Divorced parents who are only allowed to meet with their children under a social worker's supervision will be unable to have see their children. Abortion committee hearings will be canceled. Social work services at hospitals will be suspended as well, along with many other services at agencies around Israel.

"As workers entrusted with assisting populations in distress during every stage of life, it's difficult for us to go out on strike," union chairman Itzik Peri said yesterday. "But the Finance Ministry has pushed us into a corner. With our current pitiful salary conditions, it is impossible to continue to provide the best services in the cases we deal with."

The social workers have been in negotiations with the Finance Ministry's wage director for the past six months. They are demanding a 25 percent salary increase, in light of the fact that they have not received a raise in 17 years. At this point, the Finance Ministry has agreed to a 14.5 percent wage hike.

The erosion of social workers' salaries has led to a situation in which a third of them currently receive state income supplements to bring them up to the minimum wage.

The union and the Histadrut labor federation are also demanding that any wage agreement struck on behalf of public-sector social workers apply to private-sector social workers employed by nonprofit organizations and manpower agencies as well. This demand stems from the fact that 40 percent of all social work services in the fields of welfare and health are provided by nongovernmental social workers, most of whom do not receive benefits such as contributions to a continuing education fund (keren hishtalmut ) or reimbursement of expenses.

Peri urged the Finance Ministry to negotiate with the union to avoid the serious harm to the country's needy that a strike would cause. A spokesman for the Finance Ministry said yesterday that the parties are engaged in serious negotiations and there is no reason for a strike.