Overworked, Underpaid and at Risk, Israeli Social Workers Launch General Strike

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Social workers protest working conditions, Jerusalem, June 2020.
Social workers protest working conditions, Jerusalem, June 2020.Credit: Emil Salman

Israeli social workers launched an open-ended strike on Monday, shutting down all social services in government ministries and local authorities, demanding that the Finance Ministry open official negotiations with them over work conditions.

Social workers are protesting what they describe as a collapse of social services, an overload of cases, low pay and workplace violence. They marched from Tel Aviv to Jerusalem two weeks ago, protested outside the Knesset, waved their pay slips in Tel Aviv’s Habima Square and demonstrated in five locations across the country last week, but the Treasury refused to meet their demands.

On Monday, 2,000 social workers took once again to Tel Aviv's Habima Square, after an unofficial meeting was held on Sunday with treasury officials, who union representatives said were giving "false promises."

Social workers protest working conditions, June 2020.Credit: Emil Salman

During unofficial talks, treasury officials agreed to raise social worker salaries but sought to do so only after the coronavirus crisis ends, sources familiar with the situation told Haaretz.  

Labor, Social Affairs and Social Services Minister Itzik Shmuli said in a statement that the protest is “as justified as can be,” saying he was working with Finance Minister Yisrael Katz to reach an agreement on improving social workers’ conditions.

Joint List Chairman Ayman Odeh joined the demonstration, saying the government's policy reflects its priorities: "The government prefers tycoons over the vulnerable classes, annexation over welfare.”

Lawmaker Ofer Cassif, also of the Joint List, said: “It’s not the social workers who are on strike, but the government that abandons them and society at large during these difficult times. I stand in solidarity with these brave women and call on the government to immediately resuscitate the social services.”

Social service workers have not waged an extended strike since 2011. The social workers union has vowed that sanctions would continue until their demands are met. They are asking for an allocation of 150 million shekels ($44 million) for security in welfare offices, immediate salary raises and improvement of working conditions, and negotiations over structural salary reform. They also want an exemption from across-the-board cuts, and a special budgetary addition for welfare services in the 2021 and 2022 state budgets in order to cope with the repercussions of the coronavirus pandemic.

The number of reports of domestic violence have surged 500 percent in recent weeks, according to government data. The number of complaints regarding violence against children has skyrocketed by 760 percent, while unemployment rates, depression, and drug use are all reported to have risen in recent weeks.

Social workers protest working conditions, Holon, central Israel, June 2020.Credit: Eyal Toueg

In the first few weeks of June, there was a 68 percent year—on—year increase in new case files opened with social services across the country. Welfare Ministry officials attribute the rise to the socioeconomic crisis that the coronavirus outbreak triggered and believe that the pattern will continue in the coming months, as people currently receiving unemployment benefits find themselves on lower, guaranteed income payments. 

In response to the ultimatum, the Treasury released a laconic statement, saying that “representatives of the ministry met with representatives of the social workers’ union and heard their arguments numerous times over the past few months. Our door is open and we are ready to continue in-depth negotiations in the hope that the union will not execute its threat to strike, especially during this time of coronavirus crisis.”

Overload, violence, low pay

As of April, the workload for each social worker in 63 Israeli communities was over 300 cases.

An overwhelming majority – 83 percent – of social workers experienced violence in the workplace, according to a social workers’ union poll. Roughly a third of those suffered bodily attacks and 30 percent were subjected to threats to themselves or their children. Lacking faith in law enforcement, or fearing that involving them would only make things worse, 62 percent did not file a police complaint.

The union reviewed 1,000 pay slips of social workers employed by local authorities, Health Maintenance Organizations, boarding schools, associations and the welfare and health ministries. It found that 75 percent of all social workers are hired on a part-time basis, but that they actually work full-time jobs, earning an average of 5,200 shekels per month.

Social workers with ten years of experience earn about 7,000 shekels per month; another ten years on the job will get you about 7,800 shekels per month.

Studies in social work are available at 14 academic institutions nationwide. Around 1,800 social workers graduate every year, but some of them leave the field because of poor working conditions and low wages. The union estimates that around 1,000 positions are left vacant, while underfunding of local authorities by central government means more than half of social workers are employed on a part-time basis.

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