Bromine Plant Workers Take to the Barricades Over Wage Deal

Five years after Hector Cohen, 47, started to work at Bromine Compounds, Ltd. in Ramat Hovav near Be'er Sheva, a new contractor arrived at the plant. "We have 300 Bedouin who would be willing to work instead of you," the contractor's representative told Cohen and the rest of the workers. "If you don't agree to do everything I ask you to do, you will be fired."

Despite the threats Cohen did not give up and decided to fight for his job. Today, together with another worker at the plant, Ayman bin Said, 40, from Misgav Shalom, Cohen is leading the struggle of the contracted workers, which centers around the demand to be included in the collective wage agreement and to have various employment rights restored.

Bromine Compounds is a subsidiary of Israel Chemicals Ltd. (ICL), which belongs to the Ofer brothers. The plant employs 650 people defined as "plant workers" and 3,000 contracted workers, 83 of them working as "operator's assistants," who are engaged directly with dealing with materials used in the production of bromide products. Under the collective wage agreement, every worker who takes part in the bromination process is entitled to be a plant worker. The contracted workers say that since they are part of the production process, they must be included in the collective agreement, but management rejects this demand.

Workers' struggle

In order to understand the workers' struggle it is necessary to understand the conditions in which they have been working for 15 years. A tour with Yaakov Kahalon, 40, of the production section of Bromine Compounds is illustrative: The plant is divided up into production installations. In the control rooms of the installations sit the operators, who have just received a new gift from the plant: exercise bikes. The operator's job is to supervise the production process via the computer.

Unlike the operators, the operator's assistants do not sit in an air-conditioned room in front of a computer, but deal directly with various substances, clean the installations and in fact do everything the operator asks. Fifteen years ago the operator would do all the necessary work. However, the workers' committee at that time demanded that assistants be hired, and they were.

Years without demands

The factory's yard has become known as the "the contractors' yard," because a substantial number of workers there carry out skilled and other jobs, like maintenance, repairs, cleaning and so on.

After many years without making any demands, the contracted workers will demonstrate tomorrow for better conditions for the first time, led by a new workers' committee that was elected by the Histadrut labor federation in recent weeks. According to the committee, deteriorating work conditions spurred the worker's desire to launch a serious protest.

The new contractor that was hired by the plant, A.S.S. Ashmoret, has significantly decreased the additional wages paid in the past for weekend and evening shifts and other benefits. The result has been a decrease in salaries of NIS 800-1,000 a month; the shift workers make NIS 4,500-5,500 a month.

On the fifth floor of the management's building in Be'er Sheva, Ofer Lifschitz, the deputy director general for human resources, explains that after a similar worker's struggle at Dead Sea Works, a statement was written that regularizes the rights that contracted workers should receive.

According to him, the bromide plant is operating according to the instructions in that statement. Lifschitz claims that the operators' workers do not participate in the bromination process, and therefore the collective agreement does not apply to them. He adds that every worker whose job is not permanent and regularized is employed as a contracted worker. At the plant they have agreed to try to assist the workers and to give them some additional benefits, but this is being done, some employees say, to avoid having to recognize the workers as regular employees of the plant.

For its part, the Histadrut - which has tried but not succeeded in mediating a compromise - says that the previous contractor at the Bromine Compounds did not give workers the required benefits, and the current contractor is doing so, but has cut other benefits and has seriously harmed the workers' income.