Yesterday I paid a visit to a jewelry plant. The CEO told me he would be closing up shop today and firing all of his 150 workers, "because my raw materials have been stuck in the port for more than a month now, and there's no way we'll be able to produce the jewelry and make it to the market before Christmas."
But why fire everyone and close down, I asked him; can't you make cuts or send them on leave of absence. The owners live in France, and are sick of all the strikes and losses, he replied. They've decided to close down the plant once and for all, and move production to France. The owners are particularly upset, the CEO added, because 95 percent of the sales take place this time of year, before the holidays, which makes the losses especially hard to swallow.
I was looking at the dozens of workers who were standing around us, listening to the conversation. Their faces were sad, some were crying. Some were native Israelis and others have only recently immigrated to this country, but all are jobless as of today. Evidently, Amir Peretz, Ariel Sharon and Shmuel Levy, the customs' union chief, couldn't care less.
This is the worst type of unemployment. It cannot be solved with interest cuts or injection of government funds. It stems from the absence of a means of production that leads to the loss of market share. It is also the most infuriating kind of unemployment, because it is entirely man-made; in this case, all credit goes to the ports and customs workers. Polgat Jeans has this week sent 130 workers on forced leave, and Office Textile did the same with 200 employees, only because raw materials are stuck in customs - and these are just two of the cases.
Two weeks ago, when the damage caused to Israeli manufacturers by the port workers' strike became too much to take, the private sector decided it could no longer sit idly by. Oded Tirah, president of the Manufacturers' Association, took the reins from the finance minister and the prime minister, and with a high-profile blockage of Israel's ports, managed to send the workers back to their posts.
But one strike led to another, and when the customs workers launched industrial action, the manufacturers gave up. This Friday the manufacturers will be holding their annual meeting at the Country Class convention center near the Glilot junction. They will be
talking about the recession, unemployment, the shortcomings of the government and the Bank of Israel, and there might even be a lavish dinner.
Instead of an intellectual discussion, Tirah should add in a couple thousand workers and some heavy machinery and take them all out to the nearby Glilot intersection, pinstripes and all, and block the junction completely - until the cry of outraged drivers reaches all the way to Jerusalem.
Maybe when the entire country is one big traffic jam, the government will realize that it must take action. And maybe then the customs workers will internalize that they cannot go on causing such extensive damage to the economy and to their counterparts in the private sector. It is inconceivable that the customs workers, with their tenure and secured wages, demand salary raises while the economy is in a crisis and while in the private sector salaries are being cut and workers fired.
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