The Bottom Line / Driving Me Crazy

1. Fair Trade. The most outstanding failure of the Industry and Trade Ministry in 2005 was in consumer protection. From the very start, Minister Ehud Olmert sided with the business owners, while trampling on the Consumer Council, for which he made political appointments and slashed its budget by 40 percent.

As a result of this downgrading, the council's director, Galit Avishay, resigned at the end of 2004, which was followed by the departure of its most professional staffers. This led to a weakened council whose voice fades away compared to the major producers and retailers who are rejoicing at the expense of the general public.

The ministry failed completely in the area of law enforcement, almost completely giving up on enforcing price labeling laws. The number of checks on stores and retail chains has dried up completely. The ministry did not issue regulations for displaying price per unit weight data, and the manufacturers produced smaller packaging. The ministry also has yet to publish rules on the types of goods that can be returned to the store for a full cash refund, thereby turning the law into a dead letter.

On its own initiative, the ministry has exposed nothing and uncovered nothing. The media does its job as in the recent Tiv Taam case or the Home Center saga that we brought to the public's attention. Last week we exposed the ministry's internal supervisor for consumer protection, Yitzhak Kimche, for having fallen asleep on the job.

The solution to this dreadful situation is to establish an independent fair trading authority, along the lines of the Antitrust Authority, with a serious and combative director and a team of lawyers and accountants that will supervise, enforce, initiate - and generally become the Damocles sword hanging over the heads of manufacturers and retail chains.

The establishment of a fair trading authority is in the Economic Arrangements Bill 2006, which has yet to pass in the Knesset. Let's hope that after the elections, we will get a trade and industry minister who will stand up to the issues, manufacturers and traders too.

2. Our driver. Amir Peretz likes to say how when he headed the Histadrut labor federation, he took no salary, because he was paid anyway as an MK. Now it comes out that he did have aides and a particularly expensive chauffeur. When the media got on to the story, Shelly Yachimovich jumped to the aid of her boss. She explained to Ayala Hasson (Wednesday morning, Voice of Israel radio) that the driver's wages were reasonable, because they came to only NIS 11,000 a month. In the same breath, she attacked the thousands of shekels paid to the heads of the banks.

But the comparison is slightly problematic. The NIS 11,000 is the net pay that the driver took home, while the hundreds of thousands for the bank heads is the cost to the employer, and that's another story entirely. It is a fact that the cost to the employer of Guy Hadida (the driver) is NIS 37,000, 3.4 times the NIS 11,000 net wages. But a wage of NIS 11,000 sounds far better on radio than NIS 37,000, and the heads of the banks are always an easier target to crucify.

In any case, Labor whip Eitan Cabel is caught in a quandary. He was asked to employ the driver and Peretz' aides on the same conditions they enjoyed at the Histadrut, but he knows that the Labor Party owes some NIS 112 million to the banks. So he can hardly be as generous as the labor federation, despite the fact that the Histadrut's debts are 10 times greater than that of the Labor Party.