Unpaid Off Haemek Workers Hawk Fowls in Haifa Market

Workers simply helped themselves to slaughtered, frozen fowls held in storage, left the company premises and sold them in the market.

Workers who barricaded themselves in the Off Haemek plant starting on Sunday to protest the company's careen towards collapse found an original way to assure themselves of income after the chicken processing firm failed to pay their February salaries. Yesterday workers simply helped themselves to slaughtered, frozen fowls held in storage, left the company premises and sold them in the market.

The workers are protesting because they feel that no serious efforts have been made to find a buyer to would rescue the company. They attribute their appropriation of the birds and their subsequent sale, in the Talpiot market in Haifa, on their mounting frustration.

Off Haemek had taken steps to scale back staffing in the past, and remains with 200 workers. But it's been losing money for years and owes suppliers and creditors about NIS 20 million - and that's not including a NIS 3.2 million debt to the First International Bank of Israel.

There have been feelers from food sector players, including supermarket chain owner Rami Levy, to buy Off Haemek. But none of these preliminary contacts have matured into an actual agreement.

Meanwhile, the Histadrut labor federation continues its efforts to find a buyer, and the worried workers continue to protest.

For the workers to appropriate the slaughtered birds and sell them is a violation of the law. Histadrut knew all about the move, but did nothing to stop it. If anything, yesterday the national union issued an announcement in support of the workers' steps.

"The workers who sold the chickens told people in the Haifa market to buy the chickens as a show of solidarity with the struggle of the company's workers," the union wrote in its press release.

Motti Sa'ar, chairman of the Off Haemek union, said that employees had received their pay slips for February - but not the money, which never made it into their bank accounts. "The money we got for selling the chickens will be used to buy Shabbat dinner for the company workers," he said.

Off Haemek is a poultry slaughterhouse belonging to the Jezreel Valley Agricultural Cooperative Society. In the past it sold its products to the Tnuva cooperative and to the Tiv Taam retail chain. Eight months ago it entered into a partnership agreement with Mutzari Ba'alei Kanaf ("Winged Products") company of Be'er Tuvia, and opened a new company called Off Teva Haemek.

In November 2008, that company ran into difficulty, possibly because of the financial crisis and possibly also due to management problems. Production there has halted for the time being.

The Off Haemek slaughterhouse is located in Ramat Yishai. The local government there has been fighting bitterly to get the plant to relocate or shut down, allegation that it creates an environmental hazard.

Shuki Ogen, chairman of the Off Haemek company, recently said that the company couldn't meet its debts. The company owners had tried various solutions to bring the company to break-even point, but failed, he added.

Off Haemek is known throughout the country but still hasn't been able to run at a profit, Ogen said. "There are months when its losses are the result of market structure. At this time, all the slaughterhouses are losing money, but they manage to break even around the holidays. Off Haemek can't regain balance because it's too small."