Sick pay was deducted from Yousef Musa Zidat’s salary for the entire 18 years that he worked in a bakery in Tel Aviv suburb Givatayim – one of tens of thousands of licensed Palestinian workers in Israel.
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But when he developed heart problems at 55, the Population, Immigration and Border Authority refused to compensate him for the days he was bedridden and declined to provide an explanation.
Over the past four years, the state has deducted some 200 million shekels ($52 million) from Palestinian workers’ salaries for sick pay, but has paid out only 7 million.
Workers told Haaretz about their exhausting efforts to claim sick pay; they’re often rejected without explanation.
“I need the money to pay for medication and support my children,” said Akram Mustafa Nofel, a 41-year-old from Qalqilyah who was diagnosed with cancer two years ago. His request for sick pay was rejected.
The population authority declined to comment for this article, saying “our response will be given in full to the court.”
In the past few months, the authority has stopped dealing with claims for sick pay by Palestinian workers entirely. As a result, the number receiving compensation has plunged from several hundred – out of 50,000 to 60,000 workers – to less than 200.
According to the authority, only 1 to 1.5 percent of claimants have been paid over the past three years, while this year the rate has dropped to 0.25 percent – or 156 workers.
Israeli employers automatically deduct 2.5 percent from the salaries of Palestinian workers for the sick-pay fund that is the responsibility of the population authority. The money is then forwarded to the treasury.
The treasury declined to provide details about the sums involved, but a conservative estimate would be in the hundreds of millions of shekels.
In a petition submitted to the High Court of Justice about four months ago, the NGO Kav La’oved said workers’ sick pay was “managed in the shadows without established procedures.” It said obstacles were created for workers who make legitimate claims.
This week, when it became clear that the population authority had not dealt with any claims since at least April, Kav La’oved attorney Michal Tadjer requested a temporary injunction forcing the authority to process the claims immediately.
The authority said that of the 827 claims submitted since the beginning of the year, 593 were “in the process of being checked.”
For Israeli workers, payment for sick days is the direct responsibility of the employer and is considered a simple process. Absence with a doctor’s note is credited with partial or full wages.
But the process that Palestinians have to undergo, even if working for the same employer as Israelis, is much more arduous.
First, the Palestinian Labor Ministry must forward the doctor’s note to a Palestinian medical committee, which gives its opinion. Then the claim goes to the population authority’s payments section, which has it checked by an Israeli doctor. Based on the doctor’s opinion, the section decides whether to approve the claim in full, in part or to reject it.
In its petition, Kav La’oved maintains that rejection notices are “laconic and without explanation,” and workers have no way of appealing.
It's considered quick if the claimant receives payment within four months of launching the process; six months is the norm. The petition describes the process as “withholding payment.”
The difficulties in receiving sick pay deter many workers from claiming it in the first place. This is particularly the case with short absences.
“No one claims money if he didn’t work for a few days due to the flu or a stomachache,” said 55-year-old Mohammed Najar from the town of Yatta near Hebron. “You save sick leave for longer periods, usually for serious illness.”
In the petition, Arafat Amro, who worked at the Palestinian Labor Ministry, adds: “Everyone knows that there is no point in submitting a medical certificate for anything less than a week, because it’s not worth the effort.”
Abed al-Karim Madawi, a senior official at the Palestinian Labor Ministry, told Kav La’oved in a letter this month that the authority’s payments section had said the holdups were due to “work pressure.” Only two clerks were responsible for all social benefits, including sick pay, for Palestinian workers, and currently one of the two was, yes, on sick leave.
“They said they didn’t know when she would return to work and didn’t plan to employ someone else,” Madawi wrote. “They estimate that it will take them two years to process all the claims they already have.”
Enriching the state
Other agencies contribute to the bottleneck. According to the petition, neither the authority nor the treasury has established protocols for how the process should work. The Palestinian workers do not receive notification on their rights or the money due them. Information on how to claim sick pay is very limited – and in Hebrew only.
According to a report submitted to the OECD, the number of licensed Palestinian workers employed in Israel has surged from about 42,000 at the end of 2013 to some 60,000 in mid-2016 (65,000 according to the population authority).
The authority’s figures show that sick leave was paid out to 421 workers in 2013, rising to 762 in 2014 and 878 in 2015. Only 156 workers have been paid in 2016.
Over the past few years, the sick-pay deductions from Palestinian workers amounted to 45 million to 50 million shekels annually, the authority says. Information on the money paid out to Palestinian workers is less easy to come by. Based on several sources (some of them acquired via freedom-of-information applications) the number ranges from 1.2 million shekels in 2013 to about 2.5 million shekels in 2016.
The treasury said the money it receives from the authority is “deposited in an external fund for that specific purpose with the Bank of Israel, not as part of the national budget.” But the treasury refused to divulge how much money was currently held in the fund or any information on the protocols governing the fund’s operations.
Based on sources including a 2014 state comptroller’s report, the fund is currently thought to hold several hundred million shekels.
In that report, the comptroller found a string of shortcomings at the population authority’s payments section. It had “failed in its task of guarding the rights of Palestinian workers,” in part because it had failed to “equalize the salaries and rights of Palestinian workers with those of Israeli workers, as required by Israeli law.”
Attorney Tadjer wrote in the petition that state agencies considered the sick pay of Palestinian workers “a sort of fortune, most of which is not used for its original purpose. Most, if not all, of it remains in the hands of the state, which does not use it for the designated purpose of insurance or ensuring the rights that arise from it.”
“The state’s conduct arises from two intertwined factors: negligence in managing the sick-pay fund and, even worse, enriching oneself at the expense of Palestinian workers,” she wrote.
“It’s hard to think of a community that can be as easily defrauded, deprived of any information regarding the correct management of its money and deprived of its basic rights as Palestinian workers employed in Israel.”
“It’s hard not to assume that the state’s conduct regarding the sick pay of Palestinian workers does not emanate from illegitimate motives – not only budgetary, but also political.”