The Opposite of Social Solidarity

Report on public sector wages shows 36 percent of state employees receive government income supplements to bring them up to minimum wage; is this possible?

The report on wages in the public sector was met with relatively little reaction this year. It was released a day before the dramatic news about a deal freeing captive Israeli soldier Gilad Shalit, making it understandable that it was relegated to the sidelines. But now, as interest in Shalit is waning and the public is turning its attention to other matters, some of the data in the report should be looked at.

One detail in the report in particular is rather surprising: 36 percent of state employees receive government income supplements to bring them up to minimum wage. Is it possible that so many state employees earn so little? Labor Party chairwoman Shelly Yachimovich didn't look into the matter too thoroughly, but she hastened to say the report contained a "false and biased description" in that 33 percent of the employees are only employed part-time and 36 percent get income supplements, meaning the situation is truly bad.

Let's start, however, with the matter of part-time employment. It is true that hundreds of thousands of people in the country are employed less than full-time, but one must examine how many of them would want to work full-time and how many prefer part-time employment for various reasons - for example, because they are also studying or are of an advanced age or have health problems or prefer to work at home, or simply want to work less.

A closer look at the data reveals, however, that only 3.6 percent (! ) of salaried employees in Israel who want to work full-time are unable to find suitable full-time employment. So the problem is not being faced by 33 percent of workers but by only 3.6 percent. Why tell the truth, however, when the truth can be distorted?

The second argument, that 36 percent of state employees receive government income supplements to bring them up to minimum wage, meaning that they are being exploited, is even more baseless. Here, too, the truth is totally different. Of the 56,000 state employees, it is true that 20,000 of them receive income supplements, but their salaries are a far cry from NIS 4,100 a month. Their average wage is NIS 10,278 and the figure appears in the report itself.

If that's the case, however, how is it possible for someone earning about NIS 10,000 a month to also get a minimum wage income supplement? Doing so requires a bit of subterfuge. In the public sector, there is a whole range of wage benefits that are not taken into account for purposes of calculating minimum wage. This little trick is referred to as an "exclusion for purposes of minimum wage," and this is how it works.

Every time wage negotiations are held between the Histadrut labor federation and the government, the Histadrut demands that some payments not be included in calculating whether a worker is getting at least the minimum wage. These include items such as a seniority bonus, so-called "havra'ah" ("convalescence" ) payments, an extra 13th month's salary of bonus pay, compensation for car expenses, a clothing allowance, an on-call bonus, incentive pay, the so-called "uniform premium" and "reform" bonus, and so on.

The aim is clear. Histadrut chairman Ofer Eini wants to be able to continue to present the public with the absurd statistic that 36 percent of state employees require income supplements to bring them up to minimum wage, to turn them into pitiful victims being robbed by the state. And Yachimovich is using this statistic in a distorted manner in arguing that public sector wages are insultingly low, even if reality is different.

Low pay is not the stuff of government ministries or the public sector as a whole, but actually of the non-unionized private sector, at small plants and very modest businesses. But these workers interest Eini and Yachimovich less. Yachimovich contends that the recent wage report contains a "false and biased description" of public sector salaries, but the report contains no complaints regarding government ministry salaries. Directors general of ministries make about NIS 36,000 a month, and that is in no way excessive considering the responsibility and work loads their positions entail.

The problem is at monopolistic government agencies like the ports, the Israel Airports Authority and the Israel Electric Corporation. A navigator at the Ashdod port, who guides ships into the port, earns NIS 72,000 a month. A work steward at the Haifa port gets NIS 66,000 per month, a controller at the Israel Airports Authority gets NIS 71,000 and an electric company supervisor gets NIS 52,000.

These are the fat cats of the public service. They are the ones with absurd salaries that are much higher than what a government ministry director general or even the prime minister earns. But Eini and Yachimovich actually come to the defense of these fat cats, out of their own personal interest. That's the opposite of socialism and the opposite of social solidarity. It's just cynical exploitation on the part of those who can turn the spigot off and on as they please.