Histadrut union federation takes membership dues but ignore struggle
Sixty five Jewish and Arab temporary workers employed by manpower agencies and working as typists in ’Do`ar Israel’ (’Israel Mail’) are involved in a struggle to be accepted immediately as permanent workers and for this status to start from day one of their employment at ’Do`ar Israel’.
All the workers have worked in this job for between 5 to 15 years. Like all the 1,000 contract workers (employed by three separate agencies) at ’Do`ar Israel’, they work beside permanent workers, doing the same type of work, but on a far worse conditions. Israeli workers suffered the same attacks as workers around the world; the bosses are trying to take back all the improvements in working conditions achieved in the last century and to return to the super exploitation of the 19th century.
One of these attacks has been to institute a regime which pays wages not on the basis of hours worked but on quotas filled. So, the typists in ’Do`ar Israel’, who type addresses on envelopes via a computer system, get no pay for any time “wasted” during delays and malfunction of office equipment.
During some of shifts this could be two hours or even more. Although the official length of their work shift is six hours, because they are not supposedly employed full-time, this situation forces them to lengthen their shifts to be able to reach a ‘minimum quota’ – therefore a minimum wage.
No matter how unclear the handwriting on a letter might be, these workers are allowed no more than seven seconds to decipher it and to type in the data. After that time, an hourglass appears on the computer screen, reminding them that they have just lost the pay for this letter. A 1,000 letters per hour is a minimum, no matter what. Under these conditions, many prefer to work non-stop (during which they are not able to eat or drink), to be able to increase their salary by just a small amount.
Some of these typists develop wrist injuries, as a result, but still, even with producing 1,600 letters per hour, they barely reach a minimum wage. Many of them finish a working month with less than 3,000 Shekels (about €540). The minimum wage in Israel, for a full time job, is 3,335 Shekels. In the past, attempts at fighting back against these conditions ended with sackings and increased threats against those who remained. The daily threat of dismissal is compounded by being treated like slaves: they are constantly yelled at by supervisors, and called "animals". Often the women are called "Pustemas" (a sexist curse, which can be translated as a "stupid woman", or literally in its original Ladino language, "an infected wound").
"You have a stupid job – any retard could do it"
A supervisor of the international company ’Manpower’ (one of the richest 500 corporations in the world) told some workers: "You have a stupid job – any retard could do it". In August 2005, Tami Amzaleg, one of the typists, became ill with cancer. After 7 years work, she was immediately dismissed with just 4000 Shekels compensation.
Now, these courageous workers are leading a struggle to put an end to the sweatshop they work in and to get the same conditions as permanent workers. In June 2006, they filed a lawsuit, as a first step.
The Israeli Mail Authority began to be privatised almost a year ago, transforming itself into a business company – ’Do`ar Israel’. The government promised an improvement in service and lower prices. It took just two weeks for Mail prices to soar by 12%. It is the profit game now! Post offices in remote areas were closed and the frequency of mail delivery to such places was reduced. People in some distant towns need to wait three days to receive their daily newspaper. The permanent workers, members of the Histadrut (main trade union federation, with 700 000 members), opposed privatisation, and plan to organise demonstrations.
Unfortunately, the Histadrut leadership never really conducted any serious battles against privatisation of any of previously state-owned industries. The new chairman of the Histadrut, Ofer Eyni, does not hide his opposition to the idea of a struggle against privatisation or of strikes. Eyni gives the appearance of trying to do everything he can to please big business interests, including strengthening their ’divide-and-rule’ policy inside workplaces across the country. A year ago, Eyni signed an agreement with the mail management, stating that no workers would be accepted as permanent if a lawsuit was filed by the workers against the company. Presently, the mail management says it will fire the 3,000 permanent workers who work for the company if it is forced to hire the contract workers as permanent staff. At the same time, the Histadrut leadership still recognises a ‘workers’ committee’ which is unrepresentative of the workforce.
In addition to this, the Histadrut made agreements with some of the manpower agency companies to get 0.9% of the salary of the workers employed by them. This is referred to as a “Union Tax”. However, these workers are not considered as members of the Histadrut and have no representatives or rights. For years, the Histadrut leadership has promised to launch struggles against the manpower-agencies, but has done nothing.
Eyni met with the contract workers in the Mail Authority to get their consent for this "Union Tax" arrangement. But the workers wanted to become full union members, as well as finally get permanent job status. Despite promising to help them to get unionised, nothing has happened since then. A workers’ committee was elected by the workers, and a list of demands made. They are still waiting for answers from Eyni. The chairperson of the first workers’ committee, Ariela, is today a pensioner, and she returned from retirement to lead the present struggle.
Pensioner returns to help struggle
A television documentary on the workers’ struggle was aired a few weeks ago, and a first protest was held in front of the main mail building in Tel-Aviv, where this group of workers is employed. Only the pensioner leader was able to participate in the protest because all the other temporary workers were threatened with immediate layoffs if they participated.
However, this new struggle received widespread support and gave the contract workers confidence to join the struggle. Despite deep divisions between the contract and permanent workers, the former appeal to the latter to join their struggle. Such a link is essential. The next step is a workers’ protest outside the Histadrut headquarters, on Monday, 19 February, against the leadership of the union federation. This is the first protest of its kind in Israel.
One of the temporary workers, Ariela, commented: “We want answers! They promised us answers. They’re the organisation who’s representing us, so we deserve answers…They’ve established a ‘committee’, only to get our money, and dismantled it immediately after. We want to ask why there’s nobody answering our phone calls. Why have we got no answer since 2001? Why don’t contract workers get decent representation from the Histadrut? Why? To all of you: let’s make a change – the apathy is killing us."
Unfortunately, the Israeli Communist Party organisation, HADASH, issued a public statement saying it will not support or take part in any protest in front of the Histadrut building. The HADASH ‘solution’ is a vote for their faction in the next elections for the Histadrut leadership. The reason for this refusal to support workers in struggle is that HADASH is already part of the Histadrut leadership, and is afraid to take action which would expose its coalition partners.
Ma`avak Sozialisti (CWI in Israel) participates in the temporary workers’ struggle, giving full support. We calling for:
- A united struggle of the contract and permanent workers at ’Do`ar Israel’, and the election of a new ‘joint workers’ committee’
- Immediate permanent status for current contract workers at ’Do`ar Israel’, with full retrospective compensation. Full pay for a fulltime job – no quotas!
- Full backing by the Histadrut for the ’Do`ar Israel’ workers’ struggle – all “second” class members to be accepted as equal members of the union.
- Bosses’ friends out of the Histadrut – for the creation of new democratic and pro-workers faction inside the Histadrut.
- Dismantle all manpower-agencies. For direct employment and job placement service provided for by the state. For free, professional training for all
- No to privatisation! For an organised mass struggle against the sale of public assets to the rich
We appeal to workers around the world to express their solidarity with the ’Do`ar Israel’ workers, and to encourage their struggle. Please, as a minimum, send a few lines of solidarity.
This struggle has the potential to ignite a wider struggle of contract workers for unionisation and equal conditions.
Letters of solidarity should be sent to:
Call for the Histadrut leadership to fully support the ’Do`ar Israel’ workers with determined, militant action:
- Histadrut Phone: +972.3.6921392
- Histadrut Fax: +972.3.6918013