Finance Minister Yuval Steinitz and Histadrut labor federation chairman Ofer Eini met on Tuesday in Jerusalem in a bid to reach an agreement over outsourced workers' conditions - but both said they did not believe a general strike the Histadrut planned for Wednesday could be avoided.
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They were scheduled to meet again on Tuesday night, in a final effort to prevent the strike.
Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu has been kept updated on negotiations and is reportedly considering intervening to end the crisis.
The High Court of Justice rejected a petition by the Federation of Israeli Chambers of Commerce against the strike on Tuesday. The court said it did not see a reason to intervene at this time in the ruling of the National Labor Court to allow the strike to go ahead, despite the heavy damage it would cause.
Meanwhile, the Histadrut and the Coordinating Bureau of Economic Organizations - which represents private employers - have reached an agreement in principle that meets the Histadrut's main demands with regard to outsourced workers. According to the agreement, which has not yet been signed, outsourced workers who work full time and who have been working for at least one or two years would be hired directly by their employer instead of working for an employment agency as they do now. Workers who continue to work for an employment agency would have their salaries and benefits brought in line with those of regular employees.
The agreement was reached on Tuesday between Eini, the coordinating bureau's chairman, Shraga Brosh, and its director general, Avi Barak, and the chairman of the Histadrut's labor unions department, Avi Nissankorn.
While a separate agreement with the private sector does not solve the problem of the rest of Israel's outsourced workers, it contributes to Eini's image, and it increased his bargaining power during Tuesday's negotiating session with Steinitz.
In the session, during which no progress was made, Eini presented a general outline with two main thrusts. Outsourced workers, especially full-time cleaning workers, would be taken on as regular employees by the firms in which they work. The status of other outsourced workers would not change in relation to their employer but they would receive salaries equal to people employed directly by the company.
Eini said on Tuesday that an agreement in principle on this two-pronged proposal would prevent the strike.
Steinitz reportedly told Eini the state would not be able to directly hire outsourced workers in its ministries and agencies because of the high cost. But he reiterated his willingness to raise the salaries of these people and to improve their benefits, as well as increase the monitoring of employment agencies to ensure their workers' rights are not being infringed.
Speaking on Tuesday in Tel Aviv at a conference of the Association of Electronics and Software Industries, Steinitz called on Eini to work with him to resolve the issue, and in any case not to strike. "This is not the time to traffic in Israel's economy. The world is being shaken and we are in a battle over the economy," Steinitz said, adding that a strike was "playing with fire."
Steinitz said the treasury recognized the need to improve conditions for outsourced workers, mentioning security guards and cleaners in particular, and "ensure their rights as is the rule in welfare states like Sweden and Holland." However, Steinitz said, "it is inconceivable for us to be the only country in the OECD that would hire outsourced employees directly and require this of local councils and high-tech companies."
Steinitz said: "If we directly hire cleaners and security guards today, tomorrow they will directly hire caterers and afterward accountants and lawyers who provide services to companies."
Steinitz said it was ridiculous to tell high-tech firms that, unlike their branches abroad, in Israel they could not purchase the services of cleaners and security guards, but would have to hire them directly.
"In Sweden all these services are purchased, but fair wages and conditions are strictly monitored. Here we have to correct the situation so as to move forward and not back by decades," the finance minister said.
Sources closely involved in the talks between the Histadrut and the treasury said on Tuesday they believed the strike planned for Wednesday would not last long because the president of the National Labor Court, Judge Nili Arad, had summoned the parties to appear before her this afternoon at 2 P.M. to report on the progress of their negotiations.
"Judge Arad is prepared to intervene in the negotiations and to invest every effort to prevent a long strike that would cause damage to the public," a source close to the talks said.
The source also said Arad would allow Eini to hold a short strike to let off steam, but she would offer every possible solution acceptable to the parties to prevent it from becoming prolonged.
If the strike goes ahead, the following will be closed:
- All government ministries
- National Insurance Institute
- Unemployment offices
- Municipalities no office hours, parking tickets or garbage pick-up
- Religious councils
- Chief Rabbinate
- Tax Authority
- University administration workers
- Naamat and WIZO day-care centers
- Stock Exchange
- Habima, Beit Lessin and the Cameri theaters
- Municipal museums and the Diaspora Museum
- Educational Television
- Agricultural councils
- Ben-Gurion International Airport will be on strike from 6 A.M. to noon. (Airlines have changed their schedules in and out of Israel to minimize inconvenience to travelers.)
- Public hospitals and Magen David Adom will operate on Saturday schedules