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Government representatives have offered port workers a guaranteed grant as part of the public issue of shares for the country's ports. The offer is being made in an attempt to secure the workers' support of proposed structural changes in the ports.

In order to advance privatization plans, the grant will be given to each of the three ports' unions to be divided up in any manner the employees see fit. The union will be able to determine whether to set the level of each individual share according to the worker's salary and seniority, or whether to divide the money equally among all employees.

Finance Ministry sources estimated that each of the 2,400 port workers will receive NIS 15,000 to 20,000 in return for the workers' support for the government's plans for competition among the ports. The grant will cost the treasury NIS 45 million.

The offer was made yesterday morning by the government's representatives in the ongoing talks with the unions over the proposed structural changes in the ports and the Ports Authority. The offer is part of the proposed plan to issue shares in the new port corporations in early 2005 via the stock market.

The issuance will take place in stages, and will end with the state's holding 51 percent of the shares, as well as control of the companies, after selling 49 percent to the public. The treasury plans to create two separate corporations to run the ports - one for Haifa and one for Ashdod.

Employees will be able to buy shares in the new port corporations with the grant money at a reduced share price. The employees will be allowed to buy shares up to a pre-determined ceiling.

Ports workers representatives said that the current proposal is not even being considered, and they are not negotiating over the treasury's offer at all. The head of the transportation sector in the Histadrut Labor Federation, Haim Sheib, said yesterday: "The treasury is negotiating only with itself. They have made a far-ranging and extreme proposal as far as the workers are concerned, and it has exposed the treasury's intentions to privatize the ports. Nevertheless, we did not want to dismiss it out of hand, and therefore, we have asked to examine it carefully," he said.

"We have asked the Finance Ministry not to negotiate with us in bad faith through the media, and if they continue to do so, we will stop the negotiations."

One of the union leaders at the Ashdod Port, Alon Hassan, said that the workers are interested in job security and not in grants or stocks. He explained that the treasury is publicizing information that implies it is conducting negotiations with the workers and that it has agreed to a number of points; however, in reality, it is light-years away from any agreement.

Government sources said yesterday that the grants and the ability to purchase shares at a reduced price are not exceptional, and that employees are compensated in every case of privatization or structural changes. The railway workers were similarly compensated with grants and benefits, and El Al's employees also received rights to buy part of the airline's shares at a reduced price.

The treasury's wages director, Yuval Rachlevsky, yesterday refused to give an exact figure for the value of the grants. "The port workers will receive a smaller grant than those received by the railways employees in exchange for their agreement to transform the Railways Authority into a government corporation eight months ago," Rachlevsky said. Each railways employee received about NIS 38,000.

Rachlevsky said the grants for the port workers will be similar to the NIS 12,000 to be given to each postal worker when the Postal Authority is transformed into a government corporation. "Because the wage agreements in the ports are among the highest in the public sector, and the agreements will still be in effect when the structural changes start, there is no reason for a larger grant than this," Rachlevsky said.

Despite of Rachlevsky's statements, Finance Ministry sources expect the value of the grants to the port workers to be significantly higher.