For Israel's Civil Servants, Holidays Disguised as Educational Tours

The 2009 public sector wage agreement allowed unions to arrange taxpayer-subsidized vacations for tens of thousands of government employees. How many benefit and at what cost? No one claims to know.

Photo courtesy of the Club Hotel

If you work for the government, it is likely you recently received a message like this: “We will be holding seminars at a number of destinations in the near future. Employees from all government ministries who have yet to use their eligibility are invited to join.”

The email includes a few details: Four seminars will be held in Amsterdam, one in Barcelona, one in Berlin via Prague and another in Budapest. All these “educational” seminars in attractive European cities last for five days or a week. The email does not include details of the seminar programs, even though they are labeled as “educational.” What is listed are the names of the hotels – all four- or five-star, with links to the amenities they offer.

A civil servant who attends one of these seminars this month, for example, will pay 1,850 shekels ($536) for the flights, hotel, breakfast and organized tours for five days in the Dutch capital. For comparison, the airfare alone for a trip like this is ordinarily 2,000 shekels.

Civil servants who choose the seminar in Barcelona will enjoy an even more attractive deal: Five days at a top-flight hotel and city tours, all for only 1,500 shekels. The Berlin package is 1,400 shekels and Budapest just 1,150 shekels.

And if you don’t have the money now to pay these small sums? Don’t worry, you can take a loan from Israel Discount Bank and pay it back in 10 equal payments with interest set by the Finance Ministry’s accountant general – one of the lowest rates available in Israel. And if you don’t have too much vacation time left, don’t worry: Only three of the five days will count, because the other two are categorized as work days.

The organizer of the seminars is the Association for Promoting Social Awareness and Enriching the Knowledge of Civil Servants, a nonprofit organization affiliated with the State Employees Union, which is part of the Histadrut labor federation. The organization, which was established as part of the 2009 public sector wage agreement, has stated goals including “to promote social awareness of civil servants by means of seminars and vocational training, professional and social advancement and promoting theoretical knowledge in the field of labor relations; activities for social unification of the association members, holding conferences, conventions, vocational training for employees, seminars and more.” The head of the association is also the chairman of the State Employees Union, Ariel Ya’acobi.

In reality, the seminars, such as “Holocaust, Heroism and Jewish Tradition,” are just a holiday. “There are tours until 4 P.M. and days when they run only till 1 P.M. After that there’s free time,” one civil servant, speaking on condition of anonymity, told TheMarker.

“In the evenings they have activities not connected to the seminar, such as a boat ride on the Danube. It’s fun. I went to a couple of the seminars, and the fact is you don’t have the Holocaust weighing on you at all. I recommend to everyone who can to go,” she says.

This particular seminar include lectures and tours on the Holocaust, for example in the cities’ old Jewish quarters. In Barcelona there is even a memorial ceremony for the Jews of Spain. But the Amsterdam Holocaust excursion includes a visit to the Dutch city of Delft, famous for its ceramics, not for any connection with the Shoah.

Indeed, the association doesn’t trouble to publish the educational aspect of the program, only the benefits. For more information on the program for the trips, government employees are told to speak to the contact person in each ministry.

A senior government official doesn’t offer any apologies. “These are the most junior employees, who are given a chance to breathe a little. Senior [officials] travel a lot anyway, and the junior employees deserve to too,” he explains in justifying the program.

Who pays for this fringe benefit? The taxpayer.

Under the 2009 wage agreement every civil servant who chooses to be a member of an “approved professional association” must pay 400 shekels a year for membership but is entitled to be reimbursed that exact same amount by his employer, namely the government. The reimbursement, along with the subsidies paid to the associations organizing the seminars overseas, cost the taxpayer tens of millions of shekels a year.

TheMarker was unable to learn the exact number of such members, and no one seemed to know. But if only half of Israel’s 70,000 civil servants belong to these associations and receive the reimbursement, the government is paying no less than 14 million shekels a year for vacations.

A civil servant is entitled to attend a seminar once every five years, but in fact can go more often if is there is room available and he or she pays for part of the additional cost of the seminar.

The government also pays for some 70,000 work days at full pay over five years – two days out of every seminar for each employee – or 14,000 work days a year.

It would seem to be a simple question, after all the government pays 0.5% on top of every civil servants’ salary to such funds, along with the 400 shekels annual membership fee. But when TheMarker tried to find out how many of these approved professional organizations and “knowledge funds” there are and how much money they receive from the government, the Finance Ministry could still not answer this question after weeks of apologies and rather strange explanations.

A report by Chaim Levinson in Haaretz six months ago found there were some 20,000 paid members of the association in 2012, which means the government was funding it to the tune of 8 million shekels a year. Government employees pay some 3.2 million shekels a year to attend the seminars, which means the government is covering as much as 72% of the cost.

The Civil Service Commission said the days spent attending the overseas seminars come out of the employees’ vacation days. But if the seminar includes visits and study sessions on the Holocaust and Judaism, and/or a minimum number of professional meetings with colleagues from overseas, the commission will approve up to two days of paid absence.

The question of what is an “educational” seminar or conference is even more pertinent when one looks at the list of those offered to civil servants in Israel. For example, four-day training sessions, none of them counted as vacation days, at some at the best hotels in Eilat, the Dead Sea, Jerusalem and Safed cost between 437 shekels and 550 shekels a person. The packages include three nights in a hotel and two meals a day.

Last March, a seminar on “Sports as a Way of Life” was offered at the Dan Hotel in Eilat for four days at a cost of 437 shekels per member. These seminars were offered to all government employees who belong to the Union of Academics in Social Sciences and Humanities. Employees of the National Insurance Institute, who it seems part of their job is to promote sports in Israel, were given preference.

A week later union members could have attended a similar seminar on “Chinese Nutrition, Medical Herbs and Chinese Medicine as a Healthy Lifestyle.” This seminar ran for four days at the David Dead Sea resort and spa at a cost of 429 shekels a person. Others were dedicated to topics such as “Everyday Philosophy” and “Mr. Smartphone and Ms. Application.”

But very few of these seminars are related to the work of the civil servants. One of 40 seminars we found was about evaluating employees and another was on “Leveraging Innovation for Growth.”

Most of the seminars look quite the same in structure: They all start with the same lecture, entitled “Something Good is Happening in [the union]” from Yael Ron, chairwoman of the Academics Union. To give this lecture Ron visits Eilat 40 times a year.

The second day of the seminar has two lectures in the morning, with the afternoon free. The educational lecture in the evening is on matchmaking and couples. The third morning has two more lectures, always followed by a visit to Eilat’s underwater observatory. The rest of the day is free. On the fourth day participants enjoy a lecture on “Examples of Leadership in Jewish Tradition.” At most, these educational seminars include four relevant lectures – assuming that “JNF Forests As An Environment That Promotes Health” is relevant to anyone.