A bill put forward by the opposition to raise the minimum wage in Israel passed a preliminary vote on Wednesday, the latest sign of trouble for the fractured governing coalition.
Members of the United Arab List, a coalition partner, backed the bill, while Meretz and Labor – whose member co-sponsored the bill – were absent, so as not to vote against, as coalition heads demanded. Yesh Atid and New Hope argued that coalition members leaving the floor violated the coalition's discipline.
The ruling coalition was formed a year ago, bringing together eight parties that have little in common beyond their shared animosity to former Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu, who is now the opposition leader. After a series of coalition defections, the Knesset is evenly divided 60-60 between the coalition and opposition.
The bill, which still needs to pass three more votes to become law, stipulates that the minimum wage will to be raised to 7,440 shekels (about $2,240) per month and 40 shekels ($12) per hour. The explanatory notes state that “the bill aims to ensure those earning minimum wage a raise, due to the rising prices on market staples and basic needs" as well as "enable a pay increase to the vulnerable workers that may prevent the erosion of their wages due to inflation and help them cope with the cost of living and continuous price increases.”
On the Knesset’s agenda were three bills to raise the minimum wage to 40 shekels an hour. Two put forward by the opposition and one from the coalition. Ahead of the vote, Finance Minister Avigdor Lieberman and the chairwoman of the Knesset Labor, Welfare and Health Committee, Efrat Rayten, issued a joint statement saying they had agreed to formulate a new version of a package economic deal that includes a small wage increase amid “the changes experienced by the economy in recent months.”
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The announcement hoped to pave the way for a vote against the opposition bill, and prompted anger among some coalition partners, mostly among Meretz members who didn't take part in the discussions on the new package. Some in Labor were also angry, demanding freedom to vote their conscience on the matter. Left-wing lawmaker Naama Lazimi, the author of the coalition bill, did not withdraw it after the announcement was published despite the ruling coalition's unwillingness to support it, and attempts at compromise within the coalition continued until the last moment. At the Knesset debate, Lazimi said that “this bill will pass because we’ll leave the floor." Lazimi also said leaving the session was the "right move, for the integrity of the coalition and the workers living in poverty."
Deputy Minister Abir Kara said on behalf of the government: “Raising the minimum wage as you propose would harm the weakest people in Israeli society. Minimum wage has harmful impacts on the economy. In developed countries in the world which we wish to resemble, the main principle is that where there is a trade union there is no government [involved], there are deals between employer and employee.” He argued that “your cooperation should for the sake of increasing competition. You’re lobbyists for the high cost of living. You do everything you can to prevent prices from dropping. If people are pushed out of the employment market, it will be because of this bill.”
“The government now would find it very difficult to manage the ongoing affairs of state, let alone instigate and initiate major reforms and so on,” said Yohanan Plesner, president of the Israel Democracy Institute, an Israeli think tank. “In this respect, it’s a missing government, it’s a very problematic situation for the government.”
The Associated Press contributed to this report.