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Port workers returned to regular work yesterday after the National Labor Tribunal ordered them back to full capacity on Tuesday evening. The court also gave the government, Histadrut labor federation and private employees three weeks to negotiate the disagreements between port workers and the treasury, during which workers are not to strike. Negotiations by the government will be conducted on the ministerial level, the court ruled.

The decision, handed down by an extended panel of seven judges, was reached as hundreds of Haifa and Ashdod port workers abandoned their posts and demonstrated outside the courthouse. The judges also ruled that the government would refrain from carrying out its decision to restructure the ports, which would allow docks to be leased to external operators. Port workers committees and the Histadrut oppose the decision, concerned that it could lead to the employment of workers from contracting companies, replacing regular port workers.

Avi Edri, the Histadrut's transportation workers chief, announced that workers would abide by the court's decision and not disrupt work at the ports. Data from the Manufacturers Association shows that the eight days of disrupted work has inflicted NIS 1.9 billion in damages to business.

Histadrut sources say restructuring the ports according to the government's decision contravenes the port reform agreed on by the Histadrut and government in February 2005.

"The disruptions were simply a spontaneous protest on site by workers, who are concerned that they may lose their jobs," a Histadrut spokesman said.

In its position paper submitted to the court, the state claims that its decision does not jeopardize workers' employment, and that the reform clarifies that the government's decision does not negate collective wage agreements signed with port workers, and that any change will be implemented only after hearing their representative's position.

The Histadrut declared a labor dispute in the courts last Tuesday, after the passing of the Economic Arrangements Law. Workers say they took action because the government's decision amounts to a unilateral decision to privatize the ports.

Around 12 ships stood anchored outside Haifa as of Tuesday, and nine were queued for unloading outside Ashdod. It is estimated that about 10 others have skipped their ports of call in Israel over the past week and unloaded at nearby ports. The plaintiffs say the loss to business in six days of worker sanctions is about NIS 1.2 billion. Sanctions occurring near the holidays will inflict heavy damages on Israel's foreign trade, they say.

Manufacturers and merchants have asked the court to issue an injunction ordering workers to abstain from any type of sanctions, and to return to production levels before August 25, when the sanctions began.