By Jonathan Ben Efrat, in Yedioth Aharanot
They earn NIS 2000 per month, are dismissed every nine months, and have few rights: meet the manual laborers of the Israel Antiquities Authority, employed via the personnel agency Brick.
“When you take away a man’s livelihood, why not mock him too and trample him underfoot?” The Antiquities Authority: “We don’t have the resources to employ them directly.”
The dismissal notice came as a surprise to Yafa Miara. After nine months of intensive physical labor which earned her praise from the archeologists with whom she worked, she was compelled to leave behind the archeological digs.
Despite the fatigue, the long hours in the sun, and the dust and dirt, Miara (42), a resident of Ashkelon, found great satisfaction in her work: “I knew I was a good, professional digger,” she says. “Archeologists begged to work with me. They knew they could count on me, so why did I suddenly get fired? When they told me I could continue to work via the personnel agency, I didn’t understand the significance of it. In the south, many people work via such agencies. But when they dismissed me I suddenly understood that this was their way of denying me basic social rights.”
After a cooling-off period of a few months, Miara was called again by the Israel Antiquities Authority (IAA) management. Lacking any other alternative, she returned to work via the personnel agency Brick Enterprises and Development.
The timing of Miara’s dismissal, like that of dozens of others in archeological sites, is not accidental. The Antiquities Authority, a government body under the Ministry of Culture, works systematically to avoid implementing Paragraph 12a of the amendment to the Law on the Employment of Workers by Personnel Contractors which came into force in January 2008. According to the amendment, at the end of nine months’ employment via a personnel agency, the company employing them in practice – in this case the IAA – must take on the workers in a direct employment relationship. The amendment was supposed to limit the ongoing employment of workers via personnel agencies, where they have no pension or other social benefits.
In February 2008, one month after the amendment came into force, the question of the agency workers came up in an internal discussion of the IAA management, in which IAA Director General Shuka Dorfman also took part. But despite the change in the law, nothing changed in the Authority’s employment policy: workers continued to be dismissed after nine months’ work so that they would not have to be granted permanent employee status.
“We have to make sure that the workers are dismissed after nine months so that they don’t get dismissal compensation, like the Authority workers get,” Assistant Director General Shlomo Ashkenazi said during a management meeting on the issue, thereby revealing the Authority’s policy towards temporary workers. “In the coming months we’ll have to dismiss many.” Neither did Dorfman make any attempt to hide the fact that this was the Authority’s policy. It didn’t seem to bother those present at the discussion that the declared policy seemed to go against the law. “It must be understood that we can’t hire these 550 workers,” he said. “The IAA will use temporary workers and have no responsibility for their continued employment. The personnel agency will be responsible for this.”
The licensing department for personnel agencies at the Ministry of Industry, Trade and Labor is currently investigating the employment framework of hundreds of personnel agency workers in IAA digs throughout the country. Brick, which recruits IAA workers, is at the center of the investigation. Allegations are also being investigated that Brick illegally subtracted money from workers’ wages as union organization and committee fees, even though the workers are not affiliated with any union. There are further allegations that Brick workers were paid via another agency, Shirom Services and Maintenance Ltd., even though this agency does not actually employ them and has no license to do so.
Until the mid-90s, most Antiquities Authority workers were employed directly and received permanent worker status. In addition to the minimum wage, they also received the social benefits that all public sector employees get. They may not have got rich, but they enjoyed a high level of employment security.
Today, with the changes in the labor market, when most government bodies prefer to employ via personnel agencies, the employment terms for archeological site workers have also been downgraded. Not one receives minimal social benefits, and even a monthly minimum wage is just a dream for many.
This group of workers is made up of the marginal groups of Israeli society: new immigrants, Arabs and residents of the country’s peripheral towns. Most workers come from Kiryat Gat, Ashkelon, the towns of the “triangle” (the mainly Arab area around Wadi Ara) and East Jerusalem. Most are aged 45 and above, making it hard for them to integrate into the job market without professional training. Personnel agencies such as Brick and government bodies such as the IAA understand this very well.
“Antiquities Authority workers get a pension, work clothes and vacation, as well as accumulating seniority benefits,” says an archeologist who knows the employment terms of personnel agency workers very well from his work with them during the last few years. “At Brick, they don’t get paid vacation, pension or seniority, and after nine months they get fired. In addition, they don’t get much respect either. It’s hard to describe this – anyone who complains finds himself without work. When you take away a man’s livelihood, why not mock him too and trample him underfoot if you can? And we’re talking about the Antiquities Authority, which operates under the auspices of the Ministry of Culture. It’s not a private business that just aims to maximize profits.”
Why don’t the archeologists speak out?
“It’s hard to explain the behavior of academics and intellectuals who see and say nothing. But they are also under threat. When an archeologist asks what happened to Yafa or Sabata, who he knows and likes to work with, Brick says it’s not his business and that’s the end of the matter.”
Dani Ben Simhon, who coordinates the Brick case for the Workers Advice Center (WAC), first heard complaints against the personnel agency a year ago when thirty workers from East Jerusalem came to him after being dismissed at the end of nine months’ employment. Ben Simhon checked their pay slips and was surprised to discover that Brick subtracted NIS 30 each month from their wages for union organization and committee fees. “We questioned the workers and understood that they didn’t even have a workers committee. We checked with the Histadrut and discovered that the organization fees were not being passed on. It seems that the money ended up elsewhere, illegally. Do the math – 30 shekels multiplied by a few hundred workers multiplied by five years, and you get hundreds of thousands of shekels, and it’s not clear where they went. Some of the workers don’t read Hebrew and most of them don’t understand their pay slips. None of them noticed this, and we’re talking about huge sums that were subtracted from their wages and somehow disappeared. They just wanted to continue to work; they didn’t understand that they were stealing from them.”
Following an investigation, WAC decided to submit a claim at the labor court to reinstate the workers as permanent employees of the IAA. “One day they approached a group of dozens of workers and said simply, there’s no work – don’t come to work tomorrow. The workers got no written notice, no advance warning. And when they came to the employment bureau, they were amazed to see that Brick was hiring others in their place. We discovered that in January 2009 Brick asked the employment services for 70 new workers. That month, the employment bureau in East Jerusalem directed 93 workers to jobs at Antiquities Authority digs via Brick. When they told the workers that there was no more work, they were simply lying.”
In addition to the claim that Atts. Bassam Karkabi and Eran Golan submitted for the workers, WAC also requested that the Ministry of Industry, Trade and Labor initiate an investigation into the affair and revoke Brick’s license to operate as a personnel agency. Labor court judge Daniel Goldberg is expected to rule on the case within the next few weeks. The ruling will have far-reaching implications. This case comprises essential issues regarding the significance of the amendment, Paragraph 12a. “If the court rejects their claim, saying that they are temporary workers, it will prove that the law is meaningless. If the court accepts their claim, it will be an important precedent for other temporary workers in the labor market.”
In February, during the first hearing at the Jerusalem Regional Labor Court, the Brick representative claimed that the workers were not dismissed, citing as evidence the fact that they received no letter of dismissal. An IAA representative added that they were sent home because there was no work because of January rains. Meanwhile, Brick was busy recruiting dozens of new workers to replace those dismissed.
During a hearing in April, Brick manager Eli Mizrahi acknowledged that Brick did indeed subtract thousands of shekels from workers’ wages for union organization and committee fees. He also admitted that the money was not transferred to the Histadrut (General Federation of Labor) as required by law, but was passed back to company coffers. Mizrahi claimed that the money was used to buy hats and sun-cream for the workers. WAC noted that according to the law, the company is obliged to provide such articles for health and safety.
The company’s recruitment methods and humiliating treatment of workers were also exposed during the hearings. Evidence was heard that at the end of each workday, the workers were gathered and told who would be working the following day. The workers described these gatherings as humiliating experiences during which they had to beg to get onto the work roster. Since they receive no paid vacation, whoever doesn’t work doesn’t get a wage. Many times even those who arrived at the pick-up point at five in the morning were sent home because, it was claimed, there was no work for them. According to WAC investigations, Brick workers at IAA sites were employed for an average of only 15 days per month, and their wage was only about NIS 2000 per month.
Careful scrutiny of the employment terms of temporary workers reveals why the IAA prefers to employ via Brick. For each day of work, the IAA pays Brick NIS 242. Brick pays the worker only NIS 165.
“The Antiquities Authority management is well aware of the temporary workers’ employment terms, everything is out in the open,” says a senior archeologist. “The workers turn to them to protest the way they are treated, but they don’t say anything, and cooperate [with Brick].”
The IAA management, it appears, is not happy about the archeologists’ support for the temporary workers. “It has to be borne in mind that the IAA archeologists assist the workers and turn them against the Antiquities Authority,” Assistant Director of Finance Benny Harpaz said during an internal IAA management meeting. “It must be remembered that the archeologists have no authority to do so. They shouldn’t act as the workers’ unofficial advisors because this harms the IAA.”
Brick owner Eli Chen was once the director general of the Tel Aviv employment bureau. Like his former colleagues, he is very familiar with Paragraph 12a and employment laws. However, at WAC they have a hard time understanding why nobody from the bureau questions the fact that the archeological workers return to the bureau to seek jobs every nine months, or the fact that the pay slips for ostensibly full-time work show such tiny sums. Chen, by the way, does not only maintain contacts at the employment bureau; he is also the brother-in-law of Shlomo Ashkenazi, IAA assistant director general.
It turns out that Chen has no scruples about using personnel agency workers for his own private needs. For example, he hired Fauzi Masalha, who worked through Brick at archeological sites, to renovate his wife’s beauty salon in Kfar Saba. “The work manager told me he had private work for me with Eli Chen,” explains Masalha (66). “After some haggling, we agreed on a low wage, 800 shekels for three days’ work, for me and a tiler’s assistant. We drove with the rest of the workers, and they got off at the dig while we continued to the beauty salon. I did great work for them, and he gave me 500 in cash. He said I would get the rest with the pay slip.”
Why did you agree to this?
“Because I realized that if I went along with it, he would ensure I got work at the site and I wouldn’t have to beg each day for work. My friends, all above the age of 60, try to curry favor with the work manager by offering him coffee. I had it easy.”
It has since become apparent that the IAA and Brick turned a few other tricks at Masalha’s expense in order to avoid Paragraph 12a. During the year 2008, Masalha was employed as an archeological site worker for nine months. He was not fired at the end of this period, but neither was he taken on by the IAA as a permanent employee. Masalha discovered that for three months he had received his pay slip from the personnel agency Shirom. In February 2009 he “returned” to Brick. Thus, with the underhand maneuvers of the three companies, Masalha remained without seniority and social benefits, even though he had worked for more than a year at IAA sites. It must be noted that Shirom has never competed for or won an IAA tender. This appears to be a serious breach of the Obligation of Tenders Law that applies to government companies and public bodies such as the Antiquities Authority.
“I would be happy to work at the digs again,” says Miara. “It’s exciting work; you feel like you’re in touch with history. But I would return only on condition that the IAA employs me directly. It’s the least I deserve.”