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Employees of a company that offers defensive driving courses could become among the most recent refugees of the shrinking middle class, a trend demonstrated in a report on wage gaps released yesterday.

Sixteen employees at the Israel National Council for the Prevention of Accidents, which used to be part of the Transportation Ministry but was privatized at the beginning of the decade, have not been paid for their work this year. They have also not received pension or other benefits due them, though the council's director, Shmuel Levy, said they will be paid immediately and attributed the delay to a lack of cash flow. He said some of the veteran workers, who cost more to employ, would be fired.

"It's impossible not to pay and not to lay off either," said one of the 16 unpaid workers - about half the total amount of council employees. "Workers here are disabled, Israel Defense Forces widows, mortgage holders. What do they want us to do, steal?"

The wage crisis at the accident-prevention council could mean the unpaid workers join the increasing number of low-income Israelis. The Adva Center, a social justice advocacy group, found that the proportion of Israelis receiving minimum wage or less grew by 22 percent in the past decade, to 35.1 percent last year, and that the middle class continued to shrink, from 33 percent of all households to 27.7 percent. More than half the households pushed out of the three middle deciles - 57 percent - dropped to one of the lower percentiles.

The report also accused the government of undermining "the social safety net, the education system, and the public health and housing systems."