Analysis

Kudos to Pelephone, Which Lent the Disabled a Hand

For years mobile operator Pelephone has provided jobs for handicapped workers, in fact proportionally employing 10 times more disabled people than the State of Israel.

Mobile operator Pelephone is scaling back its contracts with external call centers, it was reported on Monday.

For years the Israeli cellular industry had been ruled from on high by the triumvirate of Pelephone, Partner and Cellcom. But this year, the revolution arrived in the form of new operators, including virtual ones, forcing the incumbent trio of giants to offer cut-rate plans and various simple packages. The changes were radical and decreased household bills – and the volume of calls to service centers.

The turmoil in the wireless market slammed the companies' vast profits, forcing Pelephone (and the others) to slash costs and institute urgent efficiency measures.

One of Pelephone's call center providers is Call Yachol, an unusual social enterprise that employs 200 people with disabilities. Some of them have worked at there for five years.

After Pelephone's cutbacks, there were concerns that the workers would be fired. The day after, as the nation howled, the company said it wouldn't end relations with Call Yachol after all.

Meanwhile, Call Yachol's founder Gil Winch said that in any case the workers could be assigned to new locations: no one would be fired. This is thanks to companies like Leumi Card, foods manufacturer Strauss Group, Clal Insurance Enterprise Holdings, the long-distance operator Bezeq International and mineral-water dispensing machines maker Tana Industries, which also work with Call Yachol.

So, was Pelephone (almost) the bad guy in this story? No. Despite the fact that it, like the other cellular companies, richly deserved to have their credibility with consumers evaporate, in this rare case they are owed a good word.

First of all, Pelephone is one of the reasons that Call Yachol exists in the first place.

Winch likes to tell the story of how no company in the market would agree to be his first customer, until Pelephone came along, liked the idea and picked up the gauntlet.

“They don’t deserve the criticism," he says. "They’re the ones that gave us our first opportunity and even helped us find the rest of our clients. They made presentations and promoted us as much as they could. They were our first service center for two and a half years until the other service center joined."

As far as treatment of the disabled is concerned, Winch says the Israeli government could learn a thing or two from the mobile phone operator. "Pelephone employed ten times more handicapped people than the State of Israel over the last few years," he says. "They deserve a medal. If the state was run like Pelephone, there wouldn’t be the problem of employing the disabled.”

We can also learn something from the way Pelephone finished their contract, he says. “They told us that they wouldn’t stop working with us until the very last worker had been reassigned to another project. We’re their baby, they went out of their way for us, and now they’re suffering for it,” Winch says.

There is no doubt that Pelephone will bounce back from this criticism (it has already announced that it is postponing the decision and will reconsider the workers’ employment), but what will the next CEO who is considering working with Call Yachol – and other companies like it – think? He will probably ask himself whether the next time his business runs into trouble and he has to sever connections with providers his image will be tarnished, just because he was willing to work with vulnerable sectors of the population from the outset.

So yes, we can argue over whether a company that is still earning hundreds of millions of shekels a year really needs to increase efficiency by firing workers, or whether it’s really down to the shareholders’ profits taking precedence over the workers’ best interests. We can also hope that Pelephone will be able to find a fast way to return and re-employ the dedicated staff of Call Yachol, and even increase their numbers.

But the fact is that in Israel, there is an extremely low rate of employment for people with disabilities, and hundreds of thousands of disabled people at working age, who want to work, are stuck languishing in their homes and living in poverty. This the fault of the state for not doing enough, as well as the fault of the business and public sectors, which refuse to integrate these employees into their ongoing absorption programs. Companies like Call Yachol, which have succeeded in developing a unique business model that allows them to enjoy the contributions of disabled workers, are managing to bridge this dark gap in the hopes of making the future brighter.

Until then, the blame for unemployment of disabled workers lies with nearly every company in the market, or at least those which don’t even attempt to do something about it.

Reuters