More Than One in Three Handicapped Workers Are Exploited, Ministry Says

'I've seen many paid NIS 3 to NIS 5 an hour,' says official monitoring sector.

Have you had any dealings recently with a handicapped worker who has either provided a service or sold you a product? If so, the odds are more than one in three that this worker has been somehow economically exploited.

According to figures from the Ministry of Industry, Trade and Labor, between 15% and 20% of all workers have their rights under the labor laws violated in one way or another, especially people working for small businesses.

But among handicapped workers, the situation is worse, with some 36% suffering violations of their rights, said Benny Pepperman, head of the ministry's division for increasing employment among the disabled.

"In many places I've seen, handicapped workers are paid salaries of NIS 3 to NIS 5 an hour, compared with the minimum wage of NIS 22.04," Pepperman said.

"Handicapped workers are aware they are being deprived of their employment rights, but are afraid to protest openly because they could be fired," he added. "They have no professional organization, they don't go to protests. Their families don't rush to complain, either. In many cases the families are just happy that their [disabled] relation has employment at all, which contributes to his rehabilitation."

For the government, the situation is not so simple, either. "Employers of the handicapped don't get high priority on the part of inspectors in the ministry because the state is grateful for any business that is ready to employ them. It's a contribution to the economy and to the workers themselves. No one wants to pick on them."

But this allows businesses to pay disabled employees lower salaries than they're entitled to.

There are about 380,000 disabled workers in Israel, comprising about 10% of the civilian labor force. Their employment rate is 45%, compared with 73% among the rest of the population.

For decades they worked under conditions that gave them no protections. But the protections gradually put into place allowed them to be employed at less than minimum wage, or at a salary covered by other rules governing employer-employee relations.

Thus, disabled workers can be paid as little as NIS 2.20 an hour, or just 10% of the minimum wage, in the case of those who have the least ability to work. The flexible criteria for defining work ability make them easier to exploit.

The state is of two minds on how to treat handicapped workers, said Pepperman. "On the one hand, it wants to integrate them into the workforce, and on the other it knows that if it forces employers to pay them the legal minimum wage or above it, [businesses] won't want to employ them."

Which business sectors exploit the handicapped the most to increase their profits? Eyal Rapaport, director of the Ahava Fund of Beit Issie Shapiro, which markets gifts made by handicapped people, said he has encountered scores of companies that are not adequately monitored, for instance in workshops making crafts, restaurants and even among nonprofit organizations.

"These companies have no shame paying these undefended workers NIS 6 an hour, and the practice is spreading," Rapaport said, declining to name names.

Pepperman contended that in government offices, large organizations and the high-tech industry, there is virtually no exploitation of the handicapped. But he said that in factories, including those with handicapped access, workers are exploited. The list includes small and medium-sized businesses that operate workshops, stores selling furniture and home appliances, cleaning service companies, food and beverage businesses, and delivery and messenger services, among others.

In the transportation sector, handicapped people often work as drivers' assistants, but often end up taking over for the drivers, said Pepperman.

Industry Ministry regulations allow employers to pay a disabled worker less than the minimum wage only during the first 145 days of employment - while a he or she is being trained and brought up to speed, before undergoing a personal and professional evaluation.

The evaluation is supposed to be conducted by an Industry Ministry team. During the working-in period, pay ranges between NIS 2.50 and NIS 3.50 an hour, after which the evaluation team decides whether the job is appropriate for the worker and what his or her regular salary should be.

"In 36% of the cases, the evaluation committee decides that the worker's salary should be raised," said Pepperman. "The problem is that many handicapped workers don't complete the evaluation on time, and many employers exploit this to to employ them at low wages."

Another kind of exploitation occurs when the worker completes the evaluation and the committee determines that his or her wage should be raised - but the employer simply ignores the decision.

"We send employers warning letters, but unfortunately only a few of them respond and most continue employing their handicapped workers in exploitative conditions for the sake of their personal profit," he said.

Pepperman's unit is now undertaking a campaign to stop this practice. He said employers who fail to pay wages according to the level set by the ministry will face civil and criminal penalties.

The ministry has recently retained the service of three companies that will inspect places employing the handicapped and guide them on obeying the labor law. Eventually the three companies will operate three support centers around the country. The project has a NIS 6 million budget.

Rapaport said a longer-term solution is to follow the model used in several European countries, where employers are required to set aside a certain portion of profits for handicapped workers in his employ and give them financial assistance after they leave the job.

"The test isn't just employing these people, as much as that is praiseworthy," said Rapaport. "Rather it is to accompany them as they continue on to the other jobs, and to help in their physical, psychological and employment rehabilitation."