This Is the Way to Fight Poverty

The legislative proposal was simple: A worker who does not receive the pay and conditions to which he is entitled could demand the money from the party that ordered the security or cleaning services.

During the past two weeks, Shinui MK Yigal Yasinov has been running around the corridors of the Finance Ministry seeking a compromise to save a legislative initiative aimed at improving the economic situation of the poorest workers: those who work for contractors as cleaners, security guards, maintenance personnel and in other low-paying jobs. But all Yasinov received from treasury officials were insulting proposals aimed at preventing the legislation from being enacted.

The bill was drafted by a forum of organizations advocating for the enforcement of labor laws. The forum decided to turn to a representative of the neo-liberal movement in the Knesset - Yasinov himself worked as a guard, and he is personally familiar with the extent to which guards in security companies are exploited and deprived.

The legislative proposal was simple: A worker who does not receive the pay and conditions to which he is entitled could demand the money from the party that ordered the security or cleaning services.

The bill was aimed at establishing the principle of extended responsibility: that the party ordering these services and benefiting from the labor bears the ultimate responsibility for paying wages. There is both justice and logic in this, because the party that orders the services has more power than the workers to pressure the contractors to pay as required by law.

But all the red warning lights went on in the Finance Ministry. The state is the largest recipient of contract services, and after nearly 20 years of doing everything in its power to distance itself from responsibility for these workers, Yasinov comes and wants to turn back the wheel of time. After all, the Finance Ministry has just finished fighting off an attempt by the Industry, Trade and Employment Ministry to require service contractors competing for government tenders to submit detailed price proposals. This attempt was aimed at ensuring that winning proposals would include paying workers their entitled wages and benefits. Today, it is clear that the winning proposals are the least expensive ones, which do not enable workers to be adequately paid. But the government turns a blind eye.

This distancing process began nearly 20 years ago, long before Benjamin Netanyahu came up with the analogy of the fat and skinny men, when the World Bank demanded that Israel reduce its number of government workers. How is this done? Workers are hired via external parties such as temp agencies. But then, the chairman of the Histadrut, Amir Peretz, sponsored a law that requires employers to make temporary workers part of the permanent staff after nine months of work and to pay them from their first day on the job as if they were permanent workers.

The government has indeed frozen for five years the section of the law that requires employers to absorb the workers. But to circumvent the law, a method of hiring via contractors was born that defines the companies as providing services rather than personnel. However, it then became apparent that this tactic was not perfect from the employers' perspective, because cleaning and guarding, for example, are subject to collective bargaining agreements and workers must be paid annoying benefits such as a pension.

A solution was also found for this: The contractors violate the law and the agreements they signed with the government and private employers, the government funds only 21 inspectors for enforcing labor laws, and everyone is happy - except for the workers, of course. But it is easy to keep the workers quiet. They need work, are afraid to complain, and to ensure their obedience and line the contractors' pockets even more, various fines are illegally imposed on them for lateness, sloppy appearance and so on.

Not all of them are students with brighter job opportunities in the future. Many are new immigrants in their forties and fifties and older, for whom the job as a security guard or cleaner will be their sole livelihood for the rest of their days. The few who nonetheless dare to sue the contractor are compelled to compromise because they need the money and time is an enemy. And in the rare instances when the worker is not ready to compromise and there is no alternative, the contractor pays him what he should have paid in the first place according to the law and collective bargaining agreements.

The legislative initiative that was generated against the background of this sad and shameful situation was quashed last week by the government. Faced with a conflict of interests between its role as an employer and its role as a regulator, it chose the former, as did 29 petty politicians in a preliminary Knesset vote. Among those opposing the bill were Shas, which makes pretensions about representing the weak, and the Labor Party headed by Peretz. (Labor MK Yuli Tamir was the exception in supporting the bill.) Peretz himself left the Knesset floor before the vote. His spokesmen explained that as long as Labor is part of the government, it is obligated by coalition discipline. They just forgot that Peretz already refused several months ago to cosponsor the bill when Yasinov came to ask for his support.

In another week or two, when Finance Minister Ehud Olmert presents the government's plan to fight poverty, he should be asked why he supported imposing extended responsibility on employers while at the Ministry of Industry, Trade and Employment but is ready to abandon the weakest workers now that he is finance minister.