Ashdod Port Bows to Angry Workers, Cancels Anti-nepotism Rule

We're run like a banana republic, outraged exporters whose cargo is stuck complain to minister.

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Ashdod Port workers agreed to halt their sanctions late Wednesday night, after reaching a deal with management to defer implementing an anti-nepotism regulation. The agreement was brokered by the Jerusalem labor court.

As a result, an aide to the director general who recently married another port worker can keep her job, at least until the end of April. It was the decision to transfer her that prompted the sanctions.

The port company’s board had voted Tuesday to defer the nepotism decision.

The week of disruptions savaged output at the port, which fell from an average of 152 ladings or unladings per shift to about 120.

The backlog was compounded by the fact that the sanctions were preceded by Israel’s worst storm in a decade, as well as a round of sanctions by the port’s maintenance workers. Thus,  the port hasn’t been operating at full capacity for weeks.

Ashdod Port chairman Gideon Siterman told TheMarker yesterday that the union chairman and the woman’s husband had threatened him over his insistence in upholding the decision, and that the director general had pushed him to brush off the matter vis-a-vis regulators and the board.

The latest round of unrest at the port was triggered by the board decision on December 25 to eliminate nepotism in hiring, which in turn aimed to prevent conflicts of interest. Even that decision was a tame one. It said that relatives of port workers shouldn’t be hired to work in the bureaus of senior port officials such as the CEO, legal advisor and comptroller.

One upshot was that the CEO’s aide had to vacate her post, though the board clarified that she wouldn’t be fired and that it found no fault with her work. Rather, she could apply for new jobs within the port.

The sanctions then expanded on Sunday, when management turned to the Be’er Sheva Labor Court over two other simmering disputes: warehouse workers’ refusal to work a second shift, despite having recently been given a 7.5% raise plus a one-time bonus of NIS 38,000 per worker, and the union’s opposition to letting the chairman of the board hire an office manager on a personal contract.

The refusal by warehouse workers to work a second shift had been slowing down work at the port, while the chairman’s office staff had been refusing to answer emails and phone calls to protest the second decision.

Siterman said that the union had been taking action against management for several weeks. The directors had no phone lines, Internet or electricity for the past three weeks, he said. They were told it was a floor-wide problem, but lo and behold, outside the board’s offices, everything worked, he said.

Union chairman Alon Hassan had also threatened to go to the transportation minister and have Siterman fired, he said. Siterman was the Transportation Ministry director general for three years before coming to the port.

Union leaders had admitted to Siterman that they feared that giving in on this issue would lead to action against other cases of nepotism at the port, even though Siterman promised that this was not the case, he said.

Hassan was not available for comment Wednesday.

In the meanwhile, the ones suffering from all the ruckus are exporters and importers.

Thus while the board sought ways to appease the union, Gad Schaeffer, head of an umbrella association of companies that use maritime transport, fired off an angry letter to Transportation Minister Yisrael Katz demanding that he intervene.

“We’re run like a banana republic,” he wrote. “Port workers do whatever they please, and the damage to the cargo owners just keeps growing.”

“Exporters are losing deals because they can’t meet supply deadlines,” he charged, adding that the supply chain to manufacturers has been disrupted.

But the fault, he continued, doesn’t lie with the port workers. It lies with the government, which isn’t doing its job as the ports’ supervisor.

Port workers earn some of the highest salaries in the public sector, Schaeffer charged. The workers are sublimely confident that the government is powerless to deal with them: “They always get what they demand at the expense of the state, the cargo owners and the truck drivers,” he wrote.

Attorney Elad Morag, who represents the port workers, retorted that the port’s management was acting “like a kindergartner who hits a friend and then runs to complain to the teacher about the person he hit”. He accused the port managers of “unilaterally violating existing agreements” and unilaterally trying to change norms at the port.

Notice how quiet it is at Ashdod Port: The workers are on strike.Credit: Ilan Assayag

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