Does National Service Endanger Israeli Jobs?

New book warns that expansion of program could throw the job market out of balance.

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A conference for ultra-Orthodox volunteers for national civilian service on July 5, 2012.
A conference for ultra-Orthodox volunteers for national civilian service on July 5, 2012.Credit: Emil Salman

They are an integral part of Israeli society, serving as teachers’ aides in schools or nurses’ helpers in hospitals. Others are working in seniors homes or in community centers. They are recent high school graduates, nearly all of them female and many from religious families, who perform a year or two of service, usually in lieu of serving in the army.

And their numbers are growing. That has begun to raise concerns that these National-Civilian Service (Sherut Leumi) volunteers are taking away the jobs of ordinary paid employees.

Over the past decade the number of young people participating in National Service has more than doubled to 17,051 at the start of this year from 8,647 in 2004. Part of the increase is due to growing numbers of Israeli Arabs volunteering. This year 4,157 Israeli Arabs are in National Service, nearly all of them women, from just 240 a decade ago.

If a call from Gabi Ashkenazi, the former army chief of staff, to make National Service compulsory for everyone who doesn’t serve in the army were to be adopted the numbers would increase even more. A growing number of Israeli Arabs, who are not drafted, are looking at National Service as a way to better integrate into Israeli society and enjoy benefits to which National Service alumni are entitled.

Switzerland had compulsory national service as did Germany until a few years ago, but Yigal Levy, a professor of sociology at the Open University and an expert on relations between the army and Israeli society, says that adopting the same system in Israel wouldn’t work.

“The flooding of the labor markets with thousands of National Service youth, if national service became compulsory, would without a doubt put the labor market out of balance,” he warns.

Levy has just published a book “Compulsory Service or Duty to Serve? Scenarios of Compulsory National Service in Israel,” which warns of the danger to the Israeli economy and society of the growth of volunteerism, especially in the framework of National Service.

National-Civilian Service began in 1953 as a compulsory alternative for religious women who refused to serve in the army. While ultra-Orthodox leaders rejected the idea, the program began to attract national-religious women a decade later. It remained a modest undertaking until 2005 when it was consolidated under a single authority.

Today, National-Civilian Service volunteers work in about 8,000 places, 75% of them government agencies or bodies connected to the government.

Two Economy Ministry researchers who helped him with the book, Asaf Malchi and Benny Fefferman, opposed Economy Minster Naftali Bennett’s plans to expand National Service. In particular they express concern about unskilled workers, like nurses aides, who are likely to lose their jobs.

“It will come at the cost of the neutrality of the labor market, which says that volunteers don’t take the place of paid employees or come at the expense of creating new paid jobs in a sector,” the two say in the book. “The population of the most vulnerable and least educated among salaried workers will be the first to be hurt.”

The wider economy also pays a price, Levy warns. Volunteers are cheap but their labor productivity is naturally low because they have relatively little training and are often directed to institutions and offices that don’t really need them. The attraction is the low cost of the volunteers, who typically get stipends of just 600 and 800 shekels ($151 and $202) a month.

Volunteers switch jobs often and many suffer from low motivation. Many work in health and social services, which risks lowering the quality of services being offered in those sectors, the authors contend.

Moreover, National Service volunteers aren’t protected by labor laws. They are supervised by the organizations that manage their service, but that gives them no rights, only some degree of protection.

Not everyone is so concerned. David Ivry, a former Air Force commander and the person many regard as the father of the National-Civilian Service program, sees some risks in its expansion but says that, in theory, these can be solved.

“If a National Service girl is sent to visit Holocaust survivors and helps them at critical moments, that could be coming at the cost of employing social workers,” he says.

“But you could make the same claim about army service — that it come at the expense of jobs in the economy, such as police officers. You can give them specific tasks. National Services boys and girls could be used to feed ill people at home. There are a lot who would like that, but no one is doing that right now.”

Sar-Shalom Jerbi, the director of National-Civilian Service, likewise acknowledges the threat to the labor market of an expanded program, but he says that can be addressed by limiting volunteers to helping tasks. The organization carefully vets where and how volunteers will be serving, for example excluding for-profit old-age homes.

“Every group – the Society for the Prevention of Cruelty to Animals to nursing homes – has to provide us with a list of tasks volunteers will be fulfilling. We don’t hesitate to reject all requests that are being made just to provide low-cost labor in place of real employment with full labor rights.”

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