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Instead of receiving national insurance benefits as promised to them for working full-time for the city of Beit Shemesh, a group of immigrants from Ethiopia is receiving less than minimum wage for their efforts.

Among the workers - employed in garbage collection, sanitation and gardening in the city - is Abei Tashgar, who came to Israel two years ago. Tashgar, who has four children, one of whom is handicapped, was required to report to his employment bureau once a week to receive income supplements. In July he was told that he would have to work for the city, which would mean that he would receive NIS 480 more than if he were just paid the supplements. Thus, since August, he has been working five days a week from 7 A.M. to 3 P.M. in landscaping for the city, for a total of NIS 2,720 (which includes the NIS 480). However, the minimum wage is NIS 3,335.

Tashgar has recently approached Tabeka, an association providing legal aid to immigrants, to find out why he is required to work if he is receiving an income supplement.

Attorney Yifat Solel, head of the individual rights department of Tabeka, said that when she first heard about Tashgar's case, she thought a mistake had been made. Then she discovered that Tashgar is a participant in a program run jointly by the National Insurance Institute (NII), the Employment Service and the Beit Shemesh municipality. The latter informed her that the workers were supposed to receive a job-training once a week, but because this had not yet been arranged yet, they were working five days a week.

"The program in its present form takes advantage of workers who are required to participate, employing them under conditions that are against the law," Solel wrote to the NII, the municipality of Beit Shemesh, the Employment Service, and to Minister of Industry, Trade and Employment Ehud Olmert. Solel demanded the program be stopped immediately until it could be operated legally, and that the workers receive back pay amounting to minimum wage for the five months since they were hired.

The Employment Service said in response that its part in the project was only to refer the unemployed to the municipality.

The NII said that the purpose of the project was vocational rehabilitation for Ethiopian immigrants, and that according to the Economic Arrangements Law of 2003, income supplements could be paid to the unemployed in such programs under the auspices of a government ministry. The NII conditioned the immigrants' participation in the program on a prohibition against hiring unemployed persons to replace workers who were fired, and against causing other workers to be fired, and it stipulated that the immigrants be given job training one day a week.

"We see great importance in the project, the purpose of which is to instill work habits among those receiving income supplements so they can become part of the work force," NII spokesman Haim Fitusi said, adding that in a similar program in Haifa, 12 out of 19 participants were able to enter the work force and to stop receiving income supplements.

"Experience shows that the immigrant who enters the work force will remain in it and will seek work on his own," said Yehuda Gur-Ariyeh, spokesman for the Beit Shemesh municipality. He admitted that the program's 18 participants have not yet received job training, but promised that it would begin on Thursday.

The city is not the direct employer of the immigrants, Gur-Ariyeh stressed.