Muslim Workers at Israel's Hebrew University Forced to Work on Ramadan

More than 50 employees required to work despite the holiday, which ran from Tuesday through Thursday, without receiving the 150-percent overtime pay that is mandated by law for work on religious holidays.

Muslims throughout the world this week celebrated Id al-Fitr, the holiday marking the end of Ramadan, but the Muslims employed as cleaners on the Hebrew University's Mt. Scopus campus in Jerusalem reported to work as usual.

More than 50 employees of the Mikud Group who live in East Jerusalem and nearby villages were required to work despite the holiday, which ran from Tuesday through Thursday. Employees told Haaretz that, in addition to having to work those days, they did not receive the 150-percent overtime pay that is mandated by law for work on religious holidays.

Students relax at the Hebrew University campus in Jerusalem.
Olivier Fitoussi

Workers said they were threatened with dismissal if they refused to work through the holiday.

"I wasn't comfortable with coming to work," said N., who is in his 30s and is married with children. He spoke on condition of anonymity, saying he feared he might lose his job if his full name were made public. N. said he and his colleagues were told they must come to work throughout Id al-Fitr.

According to attorney Itai Svirsky of the Law and Welfare Clinic at Tel Aviv University, such behavior on the part of an employer is a clear violation of Israeli law.

"Employers may not dismiss or threaten to dismiss an employee who refuses to report to work on account of a religious holiday," Svirsky said. "The employer can demand that the employee bring proof of the holiday's existence, but Id al-Fitr is a known entity, not some esoteric holiday of an unknown religion."

On Tuesday, university employees - including the cleaning workers - returned from a two-week compulsory vacation due to the annual closure of the university campus during the last two weeks of August. "The bosses of the contracting firm told us, 'You've had enough vacation time, now you have to come to work,'" N. said. He said the cleaning workers didn't even try to resist, out of fear of being sacked.

Mikud did permit some of the cleaners, N. included, to work shorter hours during the holiday.

According to N., about 90 percent of the cleaners reported to work during the holiday.

"Every year it's the same thing, on Id al-Fitr and on Id al-Adha," he said, adding, "We have vacation on the Jewish holidays, but on our holidays we have to work."

Sharon Luzon of Koach La Ovdim - Democratic Workers' Organization - said that forcing employees to work on a religious holiday is morally unjust as well as illegal, and highlights the problems related to using employment contractors.

"If the workers had been hired by Hebrew University directly, these things would not happen," he said. "When you contract for work with someone from outside, you are contracting with a person whose sole purpose is to make money by screwing over his employees. That's the essence of subcontracting, after all," Luzon said.

Hebrew University issued a response, stating, "Hebrew University treats with utmost importance the matter of employing workers in an appropriate manner, while preserving all rights granted to them by law and addressing any violations of these rights."

"In the case cited," the statement continued, "Mikud granted its Muslim workers the right to choose when to take vacation - during the Muslim holidays or the Jewish holidays. All of the Muslim employees chose to take the Jewish holidays off, and they receive all the rights accruing to them as a result of this decision."