As Israel Chemicals Job Action Expands, Contract Workers Take a Hit

Protests in Dimona and Arad spread to Be’er Sheva, but ICL reserves the right to streamline operations and lay off workers.

Eyal Toueg

For three weeks, hundreds of people in the south who provide services to an Israel Chemicals plant have been idled due to a job action by factory employees over layoffs. Suffering are cleaners, security guards, maintenance people and food-service workers employed by outside contractors, who themselves are losing money because of an action that keeps expanding.

After protests by workers in Dimona and Arad on Monday, a large demonstration is planned for Tuesday morning at Be’er Sheva’s Center for the Performing Arts, across from City Hall.

Thousands of ICL workers are expected to block Rager Boulevard, one of the city’s main thoroughfares. Municipal workers will be joining the demonstration in solidarity, shutting down all city services until noon except the schools.

Particularly hurting are the people who provide services to ICL’s bromine-compounds plant at Neot Hovav.

“There’s no doubt that the strike harms us as well; there’s no revenue, only expenses,” says Itzik Aboyan, a senior consultant at Nitzanim, a company that employs cleaners who work in factories.

“We have 55 workers sitting at home with no work for three weeks already. These aren’t middle-class people who can get by, these are cleaning workers, most of them 40 and up who earn minimum wage.”

For its part, ICL blames an “aggressive workers’ committee” that won’t let a money-losing plant adapt to a changing business environment via layoffs.

But according to a cleaning worker who would only give his name as Michael, “There are thousands of workers at the bromine-compounds plant that no one talks about who went on strike involuntarily. We’re neither here nor there. We haven’t been fired, so there are no unemployment benefits, the [Purim and Passover] holidays are almost here and we don’t have a salary and don’t know what will happen.”

Michael, 55, lives in Be’er Sheva and has been cleaning at the bromine-compounds factory for six years. He notes how he and the other contract workers are dependent on the signing of a collective-bargaining agreement for ICL’s permanent employees.

“I’m finding out if I’ll have work from the media; no one is interested in us, we’re the shadow of this protest,” Michael says. “We couldn’t care less who’s right in this struggle; we’re not taking sides, we just want to go back to work.”

The bus drivers who ferry workers to and from the plant every day are still getting paid; their companies are absorbing the losses, for now.

Asher Vaknin, manager of the Zvika bus company in the south, says his firm is losing more than 30,000 shekels ($7,670) a day because of the strike.

“The blow to Israel Chemicals is a blow to us all; the system is down and there’s a bad feeling in the air,” he says. “The workers are getting their salaries, but we’re talking about huge losses.”

Of his company’s 150 or so employees, 20 are regular drivers on the bromine-compounds commuter routes. “All our drivers from Be’er Sheva make 8,000 shekels a month — a respectable living — but such a worker can’t really afford to sit at home,” he says.

When Vaknin is asked whether the strike is justified, he adds: “They’re striking to protect their livelihoods. They need to see to their future, and undoubtedly it hurts us all and unfortunately the strike is expanding. Israel Chemicals’ factories are the best there are in the Negev, and I can’t flex my muscles against the big guys.”

So far, as part of an efficiency program, ICL’s management has summoned 17 percent of the 850 bromine-compounds workers to pre-dismissal hearings. Overnight Sunday, 10 Dead Sea Works employees had summonses to pre-dismissal meetings pasted on the doors of their homes.

Shlomi Dahan says his 12-year-old son found the letter on their door. “It’s a feeling that’s hard to describe,” he says. “My son found the letter on the gate and suggested we cancel his bar mitzvah celebration. For 19 years I’ve devoted myself to the plant — since I was discharged from the army.”

On Monday, treasury legal adviser Joel Baris sent a letter to ICL’s management, asking for explanations about the employees’ dismissal process — “all relevant details, including the possibility of closing production lines in Israel.”

Meir Babioff, chairman of the Histadrut labor federation’s Negev division, admits that such job actions hit all types of workers, but says but there is no choice. He says both the company’s workers and the Histadrut are prepared for a struggle that could last six months or more.

“This is an ideological battle over principles, of tycoons against Negev residents who aren't unfortunates but who have the right to earn an honorable living,” he says.

For its part, ICL says “the sole question on the agenda right now is whether Israel Chemicals will let an aggressive workers’ committee manage the plants, or whether it is management’s obligation and responsibility to adapt plants’ operations to a changing business environment. Unfortunately, the Histadrut is trying to impose on the corporate sector a model of lifetime employment, with no possibility of layoffs, even on a plant that’s losing money.”

The company added: “In recent days we have seen how a legitimate labor dispute between workers and management has turned into a political strike with political objectives. We have seen the workers and the strike being exploited by politicians, parties and organizations with party affiliations . Management pledges to continue to act responsibly toward the plant and the workers, as it has done for decades, and to those ending their work at the plant we will offer retirement and severance terms among the best ever offered in Israel.”