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There is a bank on almost every corner of the junction leading to Jerusalem's Talpiot quarter. A short while ago, the Bank Hapoalim there moved 150 meters to the right. Why? Because it became apparent that the branch's ceiling was built with the Pal-Kal system and the management did not want to wait for it to collapse on the workers and clients (as happened with a nearby Pal-Kal roof a year and a half ago).

This is one of the examples cited these days by Hapoalim's CEO, Eli Yones, when he is asked, as he frequently is, at one of his numerous meetings with the employees - why now? Why such a hurry? The bank, after all, is earning money.

It is true that this year the bank is still making a profit - but what will happen next year? There is a Pal-Kal ceiling over the bank in the form of doubtful debt that could put it in the red, and a bank not profiting, collapses. Note the price paid by employees of Industrial Development Bank.

The controlling shareholders in Bank Hapoalim and their rep, Shlomo Nehama, asked for efficiency measures of this kind a long time ago. Amiram Sivan, however, did not supply the goods. Sivan, after 14 years at the head of the bank, was enchanted with the good life. He was not "hungry." He was not ready for battles. He prefered (like Bank Leumi's Galia Maor and Israel Discount Bank's Arie Mientkavich) "voluntary retirements." The scope of his salary - NIS 800,000 per month (including bonus) in 2000 - also made it impossible to make demands of the employees.

Therefore, the bank underwent privatization in practice only when Yones became CEO. Yones is not bound by historical obligations and therefore is able to carry out essential steps: dismissing 900 workers to keep on the remaining 9,000.

Amir Peretz is angry. The Histadrut leader is protesting against the "forced dismissals." How good Peretz is. He wants us to forget that he, and his friend Haim Ramon, fired 3,000 people from the Histadrut and they did not leave with an average of NIS 1 million, as at the bank. He also wants us to forget that the Histadrut firms - Koor, Solel Boneh and Hasneh - dismissed more employees than any other firms in our history.

Riki Bachar, the head of the Discount Bank workers' committee, says that "there is no surplus of manpower" at that bank. What a joke. Discount needs to fire at least 20 per cent of its workers to attain reasonable efficiency. But what does Bachar care; he has already gone down in history as the man who destroyed a bank with his bare hands. Louis Roth, the chairman of Leumi's workers committee, says he will not permit dismissals at that bank. But Roth also knows that at least 10 percent of Leumi's employees are hardly contributing and will never "voluntarily retire."

And herein lies the great difference between private owners (Hapoalim) and state owners (Leumi and Discount). The state does not ask questions, does not demand profits and does not dream of replacing CEOs. Whatever they achieve is good. So why start unpleasant confrontations? In any case, it is worth their while to look up from time to time to check whether there are cracks in the Pal-Kal ceiling above their heads.