Officially Sanctioned Idleness Reflects the Rot at Israel's Ports

Pilots who direct ships into docks are paid handsomely to be on call at home - another sign that the ports urgently need reform.

Meirav Arlosoroff
Meirav Arlosoroff
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Meirav Arlosoroff
Meirav Arlosoroff

A week ago, cement imports ceased after ships arriving at Ashdod had to wait more than a week and a half. At one point, at least 22 ships had lined up to unload cargo. Five more gave up and sailed on; their goods would be brought in later from European ports at extra cost.

Israel's Manufacturers Association estimates weekly damage from delays at Ashdod Port at NIS 18 million, not to mention tens of millions in indirect damage. All this can be attributed to the legal right of Ashdod Port's pilots to sit at home.

Ashdod Port employs seven pilots, who direct ships in an out of the port through its narrow entryway. Each is a former ship captain with at least 20 years of experience in a command position. This is undboubtedly an important job, and it pays well: Between NIS 60,000 and NIS 77,000 is a typical gross monthly salary, according to a 2011 report by the Finance Ministry's wages director.

Since 2009, the pilots have battled management for the right to continue receiving their handsome pay – or rather their right to be paid without having to work, including performance premiums. Two pilots are assigned to each shift but only one shows up; the other stays home, presumably on call. But the second pilot was never called in to work during a three-month span examined by management. These numbers came to light in an arbitration hearing in June 2011.

In fact, even if the company wanted to call the second pilot in to work, it wouldn't be possible. The pilots are required to live within a 30-minute drive of the port, but management says none live in the city; one lives as far away as Herzliya.

So basically the pilots aren't available when on standby. The arbitrator noted in a ruling that on-call duty isn't consistent with full pay, and it certainly isn't consistent with receiving a bonus for work that wasn't performed at all.

Thus, in 2011, Israel's arbitration institute adopted management's position that it is unethical for pilots to sit at home and receive full pay. At a hearing, management asked what would happen if there were a missile attack and all ships needed to be evacuated – but only one pilot was present.

But last month the pilots and management went back to the arbitration institute. This time they came with a joint request: that the institute amend its 2011 ruling to accommodate the new agreement between management and the pilots. Under the new deal, it's perfectly legitimate that one pilot works while the other doesn't – at full pay including performance premiums.

The officials at the arbitration institute were furious with management. "Never in the arbitration institute's history has a side disobeyed the letter and spirit of an arbitration ruling . The company's behavior also violates public policy," wrote the panel.

"We're astounded that the company renounced its position in signing an agreement such a short time after the ruling. What will happen if, heaven forbid, a fire breaks out after the second pilot finishes his shift and goes home, or if, heaven forbid, the port comes under rocket attack?"

There is also no answer to another issue raised by the panel: whether Ashdod Port faithfully serves the public. "In our opinion, a government company is not allowed to pay from its funds – public funds – wages for pilots' nonwork, not to mention premiums, even if the pilot is present at the port for six hours, which constitutes a half shift," wrote the arbitrators.

How does a government company use public money to pay NIS 60,000 to NIS 77,000 a month – more than what the IDF chief of staff or Supreme Court president receive – for someone not working? Apparently only Israel's ports monopoly can answer this question. It's time the cartel shed its unethical norms and faced healthy competition.

For its part, Ashdod Port said that last Thursday the pilots had agreed to halt their sanctions and continue negotiating their work conditions. Also, management wrote to the treasury's wages director claiming that it is discriminated against because Haifa Port pilots also stay home during shifts and receive full pay – without any intervention by the wages director.

There is no doubt that the pay standards at all Israel's ports urgently need to be fixed.

Ashdod Port.Credit: Ilya Melnikov

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