Conditions for social workers are worse in Israel than elsewhere in the Western world, Anglo professionals said yesterday, as the nationwide strike of the country's social workers concluded its second week. As the Finance Ministry and the social workers' union inched closer to an agreement this week, all social workers interviewed for this article - even those who are not striking - said the workers' demands are entirely justified.
"I don't think that people who do so much, who put in so many hours and are so dedicated to improving Israeli society should be paid sometimes less than the people they serve," said South African-born Michael Mensky, who co-owns a social work company with 40 employees.
While social work is not a top-paying job anywhere, the situation is especially grave in Israel, the 50-year-old said. "Certainly in the countries that I know, social work is far more respected and well-paid than in Israel. Social workers here have difficulties in getting society to understand what they really do because a lot of what happens in social work is on the sidelines of mainstream society."
New York native Stefanie Black, who works for several nonprofits, says some of her colleagues are dependent on welfare money because they can't make ends meet with their salaries. "It's just a disgrace," she told Anglo File. "In America, social workers also don't make a lot of money. But there, you're not talking about being unable to meet your monthly expenses."
Hedva Fox, a Modi'in-based social worker who grew up in Cleveland, agrees: "Here a social worker on a regular salary wouldn't be able to make it, and certainly not be able to support her children, unless she worked for the National Insurance Institute or the Defense Ministry, some of the high-end places. In the other places, you're bringing home, four to five thousand shekels [a month] - if you're lucky."
Some social workers also have incredibly demanding workloads, which makes it difficult for them to be effective at all, added Black, who lives in the Upper Galilee. "I had a student who started working in the Arab sector in Jerusalem. As a family worker, she had 300 cases. You're so overwhelmed, it's just impossible. You get to point where you're tired and just don't want to do it anymore. So your clients get a disservice, that's very problematic."
Fox, who is not allowed to strike because she works for a nonprofit, says she supports the strike because social workers' pay is not proportional to the difficult working conditions. "You're exposed to terrible traumas; the job takes an emotional toll on us. We also often work in unsafe places, such as dangerous neighborhoods and psychiatric wards."
Veteran social worker Robyn Kanichowsky, who moved from South Africa to Ra'anana nearly 20 years ago, says the strike was long overdue. "For 17 years, we've been suffering in silence," she said. "I net NIS 3,500, I've got five kids to support, I have to have four other jobs, and sometimes I work 20 hours overtime a month without pay."
Most people interviewed for this article were satisfied that the two-week strike is apparently nearing an end, with the two parties about to sign an agreement bringing social workers a salary increase.
"They probably won't get everything they want but will still get a significant raise," said Fox.
"The strike has already been three-quarters successful," agreed Black, explaining that the two parties have basically agreed that state-employed social workers should earn about NIS 7,500. The social workers' union is trying to include employees of nonprofits in that agreement as well. "If the strikers hold out, chances are that they include nonprofits for at least some degree of improvements," Black said.
But Kanichowsky said the anticipated gains the strike might bring aren't far-reaching enough. "The new [proposed] agreement seems all hunky-dory but it's not really, because they don't give us a lot of consideration," she told Anglo File. "I work 40 hours week, and according to the agreement I should give even more hours."
Still, Kanichowsky added that she would still never dream of looking for a different job. "I'm a social worker in my blood; I would never, ever give it up. I love the work that I do. I feel like I work in a casualty department every day but unfortunately we're being forced out of the field [by poor working conditions]."
Regardless of the outcome, the strike was successful in one intangible area, Black said. "We're usually depicted as the people who take the children away from the parents, those who haven't intervened properly so the abused wife gets murdered - we're always at the negative end of the story. Now people are realizing that we contribute a valuable service and we're important and that we deserve better conditions. That in itself has been a success."
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