'Thanks for the Bourekas'

Low-level workers get a chance to spout off to their bosses in a TV series premiering tomorrow evening, in which managers work for a week with their underlings

"At first we were certain that no company executive would agree to participate in the program," says Timi Levi-Sela, the contents editor for the new original series on Channel 8 called "Behazara latachtit" ("Back to the Floor"). On this program managers are relegated to low-ranking positions in the company for a week in order to see how they get along. Anyone who initially believes that this is just a long and boring commercial for the company in question is rapidly disabused of that notion.

The employees, with the encouragement of the program's production team, take advantage of the situation to speak to their employer. "There are people here who take vacation for a month or two a year and go abroad," says one worker from East Jerusalem in the Spartan dining hall of Angel's Bakeries to Yaron Angel, his employer. "What about us? Here we go to the zoo," he says, pointing out the window to the Tisch Family Zoological Gardens outside.

In the end, 90 percent of the managers whom the program team contacted agreed to participate. Among those who appear in the 10 episodes of the series are Sabina Biran from Israir; Levy Kushnir, CEO of Tadiran; Harel Vizel, CEO of Fox; Eitan Schleifer, the administrative director of Schneider Children's Medical Center; and Lior Raviv, deputy CEO of the Isrotel company. The executives who refused to participate, says Levi-Sela, were "from Mano Shipping, no executive from Supersol agreed to participate, because the Clubmarket affair had just exploded at that time, and the CEO of the railroad also refused."

Series director Tor Ben Mayor (whose co-director is Lior Shefer) and the director of Channel 8, Sinai Abt, both talked about the program prior to the broadcast of the first episode tomorrow (Saturday, at 21:30).

Ben Mayor commented that "Sabina [Biran, from Israir] would not have agreed had we asked her now." Adds Abt: "The decisions about the series were taken well before the affairs of Keshet and [Ilana Dayan's investigative program on Channel 2, involving Israir] 'Uvda' ('Fact')."

Ben Mayor offers two explanations for the executives' desire to participate in the new series: "Either they are courageous" (Levi-Sela adds with a smile, "or stupid"), or they are acting according to the advertising principle that the most important thing is that they spell your name correctly. "In any case, we wanted to stress the gaps and the social problems," he says.

"But this isn't an episode of 'Bulldog,'" Abt immediately interjects, referring to the investigative series on Channel 8.

The series, in an adapted BBC format, is not docu-activist, but the executives find themselves under fire. On the second day of the program with Israir's Biran, she does the work of maintenance people and an aircraft mechanic. She meets one of them, Einav Weinstein, who is about to leave the company and perhaps for that reason feels comfortable voicing many complaints to his boss. First, he says, "Last week I worked 17-hour days without a break," and then adds a more general complaint: "I know that we are the bottom. We are the dirty-workers, because we get dirty first. In my opinion our contribution is much bigger. In the end, the best pilot in the world with the most experience and the most charming flight attendants aren't going to help the plane take off if we don't take good care of it."

"You're right," Biran says to him.

But Weinstein is not content with this patronizing statement. "I know that I'm right, and they are always telling me that I'm right and they're always telling me that they appreciate me. When we work very, very hard, so much so that we can't work any more, then they give us bourekas - so thank you very much ... Tomorrow, if I want to fly to Eilat as a company employee and a pilot's son will come along - whom will they board first?"

The episode with Biran was made as a pilot program, but the first episode tomorrow is the one with Yaron Angel and his father Danny, of Angel's Bakeries in Jerusalem. "This is the one we liked best," say representatives of the production team.

'Someone from above'

At a meeting held at a different time and in a different place with the younger Angel and his 86-year-old father, a burly, mustachioed man who smokes cigars (at least three a day), Danny Angel relates that he did not agree immediately to take part in the series. Had Yaron, 45, known in advance that during the period of the filming he would suffer a heart attack, he would perhaps have given the experience a miss.

"They showed us the British version. The idea looked great to us. I wanted him (his father Danny) to do this. He is very good on screen. As it was necessary to participate in a lot of activities, they didn't agree to use only him, so they made me do it. It was a real nuisance," Yaron Angel says of the preliminary research and the five days of filming. "There was an emphasis on making everything authentic. I wasn't prepared for all of that."

But the bosses also learned quite a bit. "Every one of us wants to think that he knows everything about his company," says Angel of his role as executive, "and even more so when it's a family firm, in which you are supposed to be familiar with all the jobs. The TV series contributed a great deal to me. It clarified the enormous difference between how we perceive ourselves and how the employees see us. It turns out that the years have an effect. You see the world through different eyes. You see yourself as very close to them, but in the workers' eyes, you are someone from above, someone who doesn't get dirty. Most of the employees today don't even remember me as a teenager working in all the production jobs."

The filming crew, according to the younger Angel, encouraged the employees to talk about their pay. "I said to them, 'You're inciting against me,'" he says with a smile. Ben Mayor relates that Angel would call him "the Histadrut labor federation representative" every time he came to the plant.

"The strongest feeling that I had is that I had to do this exercise on my own," said Angel, "without a camera. Maybe I should do this again, but actually I know I won't."

Danny Angel, the father, recalls the days when his grandfather was a flour importer and they had a store in the Old City of Jerusalem, and when the carter who would deliver the bread was sick one day and his replacement didn't know where to go, the horse would stop on its own in front of the customers' houses.

"I knew all of the problems," he says. "I wasn't surprised by what came up, since I know the story back from the days when we baked 8,500 loaves of bread a day" (today Angel's bakes 200,000).

According to the younger Angel, the exercise has been good for the bakery. "This attention made the employees happy - the interest in them, their ability to explain what needs to be done."

Many of the executives at Angel's Bakeries have come from "inside": The distribution director was a driver and the production manager was once a production worker, explains Yaron Angel. The bakery is also the only one of the companies featured in the series that has a workers' committee, according to the program crew.

Of the few changes he has made at the company in the wake of the program, such as installing fans, Yaron Angel says: "It's hard for me to say whether this is because of the program. In my opinion we would have done it even without a film, if only they had come to complain to us."

What is certain, though, is that he learned in which of the low-ranking jobs he suffered the most: in sales at the bakery store just after Passover ended.

Cutting tape

For most of the managerial types, participating in the series was not "going back to the floor," because most of them had not arisen from within the plant and, unlike the Angels, had never done low-ranking jobs there. Ben Mayor cites the example of Tadiran CEO, Levi Kushnir: "This is an executive for whom the gap between him and his employees is huge. He lives in a penthouse; they earn NIS 3,500. Before the program he said, 'There won't be any surprises for me.' But when he worked with the employees, he discovered that for years, one of his workers had been cutting tape with his teeth. All day long that's what he did. That was his job - to cut tape - and he did this with his teeth. Kushnir was surprised and brought him a tool that would cut the tape for him."

"But in the follow-up we conducted three months later," adds Levi-Sela, "we discovered that this worker was continuing to cut the tape with his teeth. The implement he had been given was not effective enough. For sure there is a tool with hot glue that would help him, but it is too expensive ... There are also CEOs who don't know where they're living."

Lior Raviv, deputy CEO of Isrotel, worked on the program alongside a foreign worker from the Philippines. "He heard from her that she had not seen her children for years and he was very moved by this. He couldn't stop talking about it for five days. This is proof that the gap between executives and workers isn't just economic, but also cultural," explains Levi-Sela.

Every time one of the participants describes the executives in too negative a light, Abt wriggles uncomfortably in his chair. Not only because he himself is the director of Channel 8, but also, presumably, for fear of hurting the managers who appear. "The series really does also present a human story. It's not just insensitive executives in suits and the victims. It's not black and white. There is also a real encounter here. Everything is more rounded."

Adds Levi-Sela: "The main character is the CEO, the audience loves him. Through them we experience the series. Even when Lior Raviv gets all worked up about the Filipina's story, we go with the discovery and don't mock him."

Among the managerial types there were those for whom the exercise of working elsewhere, which lasted about a week, was quite difficult. After a few hours of folding clothes in one of the branches of Fox, the company's director, Harel Vizel, said he couldn't take it any more. "He kept going back to being an executive," says Levi-Sela. "When we went back after three months to see what had happened at the plants, the change he had made was in the arrangements at the shop in Givatayim, to which he had been exposed and where he discovered that there was only one cash register and therefore the line was too long."

Says Ben Mayor in summary: "Not one of the executives gave a raise to workers after the program." According to him, the managerial qualities of the executive depend very much on the elements of his personality. Shlomi Gabai, the CEO of IKEA, comes from the Katamon Vav neighborhood of Jerusalem. He symbolizes the executive who has come up from the bottom. "He is very much at eye- level," says Ben Mayor.

However, the director goes on to say that he had mixed feelings about Avi Ben Hur, CEO of James Richardson, a former air force man: "He behaves like a commander in the army. His relations with the workers are tough," but for television, "he is an excellent character, because he acts as though he is not at all aware of the camera's existence. At the beginning of the episode with him he stands looking at a row of television screens that survey what is going on in the duty-free shops under his management and says, 'We aren't a company of gangsters.'"

They see no future

The reason management would want to participate in the program is fairly clear, but how did the production team persuade the workers to express protest? Levi-Sela makes it clear that "there were quite a number who agreed to talk, but backed out at the last minute. And there were those for whom the camera was a catalyst."

"There are those who can't help but talk," explains Ben Mayor. "There was one woman at James Richardson who said that she wouldn't talk to the camera, but she couldn't hold back. She was a cosmetician who talked about the attitude toward her: 'I'm not a number on a sticker,' she declared."

"He also insulted her," adds Levi-Sela of the executive, "when he said that within an hour, he figured out how to do her job."

"People are prepared to do a lot of things in front of the camera," notes Abt. "In fact, there is nothing that they are not prepared to do."

In the episode on Sabina Biran, one of the workers asks her how much she earns per hour and she answers, "A lot, a lot." Do any of the managers reveal how much they earn? "No," replies Ben Mayor. "Harel says that in the press that they reported that his salary is NIS 150,000 a month, but he claims it is one-third of that."

And has this exercise taught the workers that they have a chance of rising to the top? Abt explains that in many of the departments "there is no mobility." Levi-Sela tells of the young women immigrants from Russia, in the Fox shops, who say that they see no future.

And what have the makers of the series learned from this exercise? "That it isn't just money," Levi-Sela sums up. "At IKEA there is awareness of the worker. They have parties, events, birthdays. They help students. The director, Gabai, says that he could have added this money to the salaries, but the workers' welfare is more important." According to her, "it's hardest to see a work place where they don't speak to anyone. This affects the self-image."

Ben Mayor, however, believes that "an important element in esteem is how much you earn."

Who will participate in the series' second season? The production team very much wants to work with the National Insurance Institute and the health maintenance organizations; "Public organizations that really do affect our lives," explains Abt. Ben-Mayor would be happy to see what happens at the banks and at the Income Tax Bureau. Levi-Sela comments that it is difficult to work with politicians and media people, because they are very cognizant of the medium and also because politicians are very involved with themselves: "We contacted three mayors in the previous round. None of them understood what the series is about, because they didn't give us an opportunity to explain."