strike - Eliyahu Hershkovitz - March 7 2011
Social workers protesting in Be’er Sheva on March 7, 2011. Photo by Eliyahu Hershkovitz
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The social workers' strike that began yesterday was predictable, and could have been prevented. Their salary demands have been well known for quite some time, and the government could have conducted sensible negotiations with them and reached a compromise. But it seems that neither side has any faith in the other. The social workers have despaired, while the government has already proven that it responds mainly to pressure.

The country's social workers must cope with an inhuman case load (each one handles about 250 cases, on average ) in exchange for very low pay: NIS 4,183 a month gross for a new worker with no experience, and NIS 6,265 gross for a worker with a master's degree and 25 years of experience. With a few exceptions, these are the salary conditions for all of the approximately 10,000 social workers employed by the state.

Furthermore, colleagues who are employed by privatized social service agencies have it even worse: Their pay is lower; they usually don't receive benefits like a continuing education fund (keren hishtalmut ) or reimbursement of expenses; and they have very little job security.

Israel's welfare services have undergone a major change in recent years, and this situation demands a reassessment. Improvements in the services has led to a flood of new clients seeking assistance from the same, small number of social workers. A battle to encourage the hiring of more workers which began in 1999 has thus far resulted in an additional 221 positions - out of the 1,000 that were needed even back then. Meanwhile, the privatization of some welfare services has caused an excessive turnover in social workers, which in turn has undermined the quality of service.

Though the social workers received a substantial raise in 1994, their pay has eroded since then, and they are now at the bottom of the ladder. The government preferred to give financial support to thousands of private nonprofit organizations that dole out charity with no proper professional diagnoses. In so doing, it reduced the funds available for welfare work and accelerated Israel's transformation from a welfare state that takes care of its citizens to a charity state governed by the pressures of various lobbies.

The government's proposal for a differential pay increase - which would be given mainly to the lowest earners and to people in certain selected specialties - is logical, but it must also apply to social workers employed by privatized welfare agencies. A strong public welfare system is a necessary condition for a strong society.