Not Just for Janitors Anymore: Majority of Social Services Provided by Contract Workers

86 percent of the services provided by the Social Affairs Ministry are provided via private contractors.

About 70 percent of all social workers hired in recent years are contract laborers rather than in-house employees, a new study has found - and of these, 90 percent are women.

In fact, most contract workers in Israel are women, found the study by the Taub Center for Social Policy Studies.

Social services in particular are overwhelmingly outsourced, the study said: Fully 86 percent of the services provided by the Social Affairs Ministry are provided via private contractors.

"The health and social affairs ministries are the ministries that use private contractors the most," said Dr. Amir Paz-Fuchs, academic co-director of the Van Leer Jerusalem Institute's project on state responsibility and the limits of privatization. "From the standpoint of labor law, there are two possible methods of employment: direct employment or contract employment. Thus employment via nonprofit organizations is simply contract employment, even if it has a more respectable name."

"There's a complete overlap between fields of the public service that employ women and fields that use private contractors," he continued. "Wages for people in these jobs were low to begin with, and now, in many cases - like in the case of social workers - salaries have even fallen below minimum wage."

But the problem is not just low wages, said Paz-Fuchs, who is currently writing a paper on the use of contractors: Private contractors also distort professional judgment by bringing financial considerations into the decision-making process.

In interviews with contract workers in the fields of health and welfare, many reported being forced to issue a professional opinion different from what they deemed appropriate, he said. For instance, a social worker at an institution for the mentally impaired said the director had asked her not to send a certain patient to rehabilitation even though she thought he could be rehabilitated, because "at the moment there's no other [patient] in line to replace him, and without patients, we won't get funding from the Social Affairs Ministry."

Similar testimony was offered by psychologists at companies hired to provide public health services, employees of drug rehab centers, and many others.

Having outsourced these services, government ministries have no way to supervise the contractors' conduct or the professional opinions they issue.

"People come with a sense of mission, but they are forced to make decisions that violate their professional ethics," Paz-Fuch said.

Another report, prepared by the Knesset's research center last year for the Immigration, Absorption and Diaspora Affairs Committee, found that half of all contract workers are immigrants who arrived after 1990, though such immigrants constitute only 12.2 percent of the population. The report, citing a study by the Myers-JDC-Brookdale Institute, also noted that fully 35 percent of Ethiopian immigrants work as contract laborers.

The Knesset report attributed the sharp rise in the use of private contractors in recent years to a law passed in 1996, though it took effect only in 2008. The law states that a contract laborer becomes an in-house employee after nine months on the job with the same employer. But it gave a sweeping exemption to "service providers" - thus encouraging employers to begin a massive move toward outsourced services.

Martin Weiler, director of the Bema'aglei Tzedek organization's Contract Workers Initiative, said he was encouraged by the newfound attention to the problem of contract labor, and by the fact that the Histadrut labor federation has taken up the long-ignored cause - a move he attributed to the summer's social protest. Nevertheless, he said, he doesn't see the problem being solved anytime soon.