Ethiopian Israelis employed at an Education Ministry-run guidance center that helps facilitate absorption of new immigrant pupils claim that their colleagues of different backgrounds receive better employment conditions.
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Some 70 Ethiopian Israelis hired by private contractors are employed as educational counselors and liaison workers at the center, assisting staff at various schools in integrating newcomers of Ethiopian origin. As such, the workers' contracts expire after three years and they are vulnerable to being fired. They also are not given seniority and receive no payment for professional development on the job.
In contrast, colleagues at the center from the Former Soviet Union, France and Spain, whose work focuses on immigrants from those places, are employed by local authorities – not external contractors.
The Ethiopian Israelis have for months demanded that ministry officials arrange to have them hired as state or local authority employees, but they have received no response from their appeals, nor have their working conditions been equalized to those of their counterparts. In August, the employees claiming discriminatory treatment organized themselves into a group called Power to the Workers and have recently organized public demonstrations.
To center in question was set up by the Ministry of Education to advise and assist schools and other ministry-run agencies in the absorption process, in accordance with the specific needs of each community. The goal is to for center staff to help mediate between immigrant parents and pupils, on one hand, and educators at schools across the country, so as to narrow cultural and language gaps. Some 11,000 pupils of Ethiopian background currently benefit from these services.
MK Avraham Nagosa (Likud), chairman of the Knesset Committee for Immigration, Absorption and Diaspora Affairs, appealed on behalf of the group to Education Minister Naftali Bennett. In response, in October, Bennett sent him a letter explaining the differences in the hiring procedures involving Ethiopian Israeli workers versus those of other backgrounds working at the immigrant center.
“Liaison personnel for immigrants from France, Russia and Spain are hired according to a matching method," Bennett wrote, "whereby the local authority pays 25 percent of employment expenses while the ministry makes up the rest. The liaison personnel for Ethiopian immigrants are hired, however, as part of a services 'purchasing' arrangement, so as to prevent a situation in which the local authorities will not be interested in hiring them – this ensures that these services are provided [to Ethiopian Israeli immigrants].”
The minister added that “the purchase of services is regulated by the law requiring issuing of tenders, which ensures competition when the government wants to buy such services. Regarding claims that these people should be hired by the state, the hiring process needs to adapt to changing circumstances and is therefore not permanent. The hope is that immigrants [from Ethiopia] are absorbed quickly so that these services will no longer be needed after a few years.”
In other words, the ministry says that the decision to hire the center's Ethiopian employees as contract workers is based on the “hope” that the newcomers are absorbed rapidly – even though official figures published by the Ministry of Education itself indicate that Ethiopian immigrants don’t do as well as other newcomers in terms of absorption, and need additional assistance for longer periods.
In 2013 there were 43,727 pupils of Ethiopian background in local schools, of whom 14,087 were actually born in Ethiopia. Most of them (85 percent) have taken matriculation exams in high school but only 36 percent met the required standards and were awarded a matriculation certificate – as compared to 54 percent among the general high-school population.
“There is no logic to the excuses made by the ministry in explaining why only people from Ethiopia are hired by private contractors, while their counterparts are hired by local authorities,” says Yael Sinai, from the Power to the Workers group. “Discrimination against this community is not a new phenomenon, but not many people know about the discrimination suffered by people with academic degrees from this community, or about how much the state is hurting them. Under the banner of a ‘temporary project,’ the Ministry of Education is perpetuating their exploited condition.”
In addition, the salary of contract workers hasn’t been updated since the center was established. For example, the monthly wage of A., who has been working for 15 years, was only increased by one shekel between 2005 and 2015, even though he has a master’s degree and a teaching certificate.
In a letter from these employees to Minister Bennett a few months ago, which has not been answered yet, they wrote: “We are educators who view themselves as representatives of the Education Ministry, acting out of a sense of mission vis-a-vis our communities. We wish to be directly employed by the ministry since the present situation negatively impacts the education of Ethiopian children, by employing unqualified people. We are a model for emulation by the community, believing in the integration of our community in Israeli society. We teach our pupils to strive for excellence and to blend in by excelling and being active in the community. This is particularly important on the backdrop of recent protests.”
The Knesset committee for education has said in response that it will hold a special debate on incorporating Ethiopian pupils into the school system and about the employment of the centers' personnel.