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The Maritime Merchants Association is pressuring the government to postpone port reforms slated to go into effect on February 17 "to prevent a strike that would cause grave economic harm."

Representatives of the import/export business sector support the association's appeal.

Association chair Gad Sheffer sent the letter yesterday to Finance Minister Benjamin Netanyahu and to Transportation Minister Meir Sheetrit, asking them to raise the matter at the next cabinet meeting.

Sheffer wants the cabinet to agree to postpone implementing the reforms if negotiations between the Finance Ministry, the Histadrut labor federation and the port workers' committees fail to reach agreement in time. The reforms would not take effect until a new collective agreement regarding workers' rights in the ports was signed.

Treasury officials commented that "there's no reason to postpone the date, which is important to spur competition at the ports. We can reach agreement by February 17."

The reforms would transform the Haifa, Ashdod and Eilat ports into separate government companies.

Another company would be established to manage the ports' real estate assets, valued in the billions of shekels.

Despite this, pressure by the powerful unions has eroded the reforms somewhat so that some of the properties will be transferred to the port companies' control.

This goes against the treasury's position, which sought to transfer all properties to the new, separate company.

Port workers are demanding a 15 percent pay hike and a one-time NIS 35,000-40,000 bonus for each worker in negotiations.

Railway workers received a similar bonus when the Israel Railway Authorities became a government company. The treasury has yet to meet this demand.