Ashdod port - Ilan Asayad - August 2011
Loading cargo for shipment abroad at Ashdod Port. Photo by Ilan Asayag
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Ashdod Port ground to a halt yesterday evening as hundreds of workers walked off the job to attend the wedding of a senior union member at a city banquet hall.

The port is a state corporation under the Transportation Ministry and half of the nation's international trade passes through it. In the past six months hundreds of port workers have taken time off to party with senior union members at other private functions, costing the economy hundreds of thousands of shekels each time.

Yesterday it was the wedding of Alon Mualem of the mechanical equipment workers' union, headed by Alon Hassan, who is also chairman of the port workers' union. More than 900 people were invited to his wedding, including all those in charge of loading and unloading at the port. Their absence effectively paralyzed the port's activity.

In the past three years Hassan has held two bat mitzvah parties for his daughters, each time stopping the port's activity for several hours.

Management has been unable to ensure continued activity in the port, whose workers are represented by more than 10 unions.

Port CEO Yehoshua Sagis and chairman Yaakov Raz yesterday issued a statement to import and export companies using the port saying that "due to a large function the Ashdod Port will make changes and adjustments in shift hours... between 8 P.M. and midnight there may be delays in the port's work."

Gad Sheffer, head of the Israel Shippers' Council, who represents cargo importers and exporters, told Haaretz, "Private functions of senior union members paralyze the port for several hours, causing colossal damage to the country's economy. The damage can reach many dozens of thousands of shekels an hour, and hundreds of thousands of shekels a day.

"The problem is that this damage to the economy has become the norm. Nobody is willing to take on the port's powerful union. The port's management doesn't take a firm stand against such things, isn't demanding the Histadrut's intervention and nobody is fining the port workers."

A senior Transportation Ministry official said, "I estimate the damage at hundreds of thousands of shekels a day although it could be greater. It causes damage to the port's clients, importers and exporters whose ships are delayed and are not loaded or unloaded. This could cause them delays in the next ports of call and harm their reputation for keeping to their schedule. They could even lose clients because of it.

"Then there is damage to drivers bringing merchandise to and from the port and to clients whose goods are delayed in the port. Households and consumers also suffer - all those who purchase an item that doesn't come on time. The entire supply chain is damaged, and that's the high cost of living the protesters are talking about."

"It's clear to us this is inconvenient but this is what happens when you work in shifts," said Hassan."We try to minimize the damage."

The Government Corporation Authority told Haaretz it has asked the port for details of the event and will then decide how to act.