Israeli Interior Ministry Workers Resume Strike, Refuse to Issue Passports

Workers claim the workload at the ministry’s Population, Immigration and Borders Authority is intolerable.

Ilan Lior
Ilan Lior
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Silvan Shalom inaugurating the biometric passport control in May 2015. He has admitted biometric passports have added worktime for Interior Ministry employees.Credit: Tomer Appelbaum
Ilan Lior
Ilan Lior

Interior Ministry staffers on Sunday resumed their strike after a three-week hiatus, refusing to hold office hours or issue identity cards and passports.

The workers are demanding raises as well as the hiring of extra staff, saying the workload at the ministry’s Population, Immigration and Borders Authority is intolerable.

Mira Asraf, head of the authority's union, said the strike will continue until the workers’ demands are met. The only authority office nationwide that is still receiving the public and issuing passports is the one at Ben-Gurion Airport. But renewing a passport there costs 1,120 shekels ($295), compared to 280 shekels at other offices.

“We left the office at Ben-Gurion open, for now, to issue passports to whoever needs one,” Asraf said. While she knows getting a passport there is expensive, she added, the workers don’t set the price; that’s management’s decision, and “If it wanted to, it could lower prices.”

Though the labor dispute at the authority began over two years ago, so far, “nothing has changed,” Asraf charged.

Three weeks ago, workers launched a wildcat strike in which they refused to issue biometric identity cards or passports, but continued issuing regular ones. They said the pilot project for issuing biometric documents had greatly increased their workload – a fact confirmed by Interior Minister Silvan Shalom, who told the Knesset Interior Committee last week that a biometric document takes 18 minutes to issue, compared to six for a regular document.

Employees returned to work a day later after management promised to resolve the biometric issue “within two days,” Asraf said, but that hasn’t happened, either.

A few days ago, workers instituted partial sanctions under which they went home at 6 P.M. on the dot on Mondays and Wednesdays, refusing to serve even people who had been waiting for hours after that time. Previously, workers would serve anyone who was already there, and consequently, “we reached a situation where they would work until 8 or 9 at night,” Asraf said.

“This is impossible; we all have families at home.”

“We’ve reached a situation where we’re slaves, not employees,” she added.
But the Finance Ministry rejected her claim that nothing has been resolved. It said agreements were reached in principle on adding staff and giving workers a one-time grant as compensation for the biometric pilot, but the talks blew up when the union also demanded a raise to compensate for the installation of an automated system that issues numbers to people waiting in line and directs them to the next available clerk – something that would actually ease their workload.

“They’re saying, ‘I’m overworked, I want you to compensate me for being overworked, but I also want you to compensate me for a system that reduces my workload.’ It’s absurd,” one treasury official said. “There’s a very problematic public culture that says no matter what happens, whether it gives me something or takes it away, I want to receive compensation for it.”

The Population, Immigration and Borders Authority’s management said it has already taken various steps to improve the situation, including authorizing the hiring of 50 new workers; moving many services online so that authority staffers don’t have to deal with them; opening three new offices and approving a grant of 10,000 shekels per worker to compensate for the biometric pilot. Given all this, it said, the decision to go on strike at the height of the summer travel season is incomprehensible.