Labor Pains /The Leftovers of the Steak

The main event in labor circles last week had its amusing aspect: Dockworkers in Ashdod declared a "steak strike" after government officials decided to abolish one of their perks - lunch vouchers at local grill restaurants. There were other events, too: the ongoing doctors' strike, the wildcat shutdown of the trains.

But in an unseen corner of the labor market, history was made: Cleaners at Ben-Gurion University of the Negev went on strike.

It didn't involve key infrastructure or billions of shekels. But more than 100,000 people are employed through manpower companies. Most engage in cleaning and security; some in manufacturing, administration, maintenance and even teaching. The lower their education, the worse these temps are paid.

The protest by Ben-Gurion's cleaners was surprising: The churn rate among these new immigrants, inexperienced in labor negotiations, tends to be high. But their pay, they complain, is low.

"We get the minimum wage, sometimes a few agorot more," said one, Marie Vasnovsky. "We wanted to sign a proper contract with our employer, but they aren't prepared to hear our demands and even shouted at us: 'Who are you to ask for raises?'"

Their move is courageous. In their industry, the employer is strong and they are weak. Just as courageous is their decision to unionize, via a new democratic workers' organization, Koach LaOvdim (Power to the Workers ), that competes with the Histadrut.

Cleaners at the Hebrew University of Jerusalem also unionized, also through Koach LaOvdim. Tel Aviv University cleaners opted for the Histadrut.

Cleaners and guards are among the lowest-paid workers, but their data doesn't figure in national statistics because manpower companies don't have to report on their pay. The Finance Ministry says the average wage of temps in government agencies in 2009 was NIS 5,835 a month. But cleaners outside the government (who aren't in the stats ) earn the minimum wage, NIS 3,890.

Or sometimes, even less. Employers may deduct money for damaged equipment, or defraud them of their benefits. The most meanly treated of all are the street-sweepers whom cities hire through manpower companies.

Public bodies such as universities, cities and government companies have been changing for the better when it comes to hiring temps through contractors. They are demanding disclosure of the contractor's pay practices and are making the contractor declare in writing that he obeys the law.

That's the theory. But the reality hasn't changed, and neither the (government ) agency buying the service nor the contractor can disclaim responsibility: The Minimum Wage Law deems both of them responsible if a temp hired through a contractor is paid less than the minimum wage.

The cleaners' protest is a whisper. But it could be the harbinger of a storm in labor relations as other groups of temps organize and stand up for their rights.