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contract workers: justice for some is not justice for all (from the Times of Israel)

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A few months ago, the Israeli public finally began discussing the issue on contract workers and what it means to work without any social terms or benefits. Weeks of debates culminated in a four day general strike bringing the issue to the forefront of Israeli media with MKs, businessmen, and labor activists talking about the moral, legal and ethical issues of contract work. But what should have been a platform for change culminated in an agreement for only Histadrut workers, leaving the overwhelming majority of Israel’s struggling working class to suffer.

I’d like to begin by explaining what constitutes a contract worker, because most of the media as well the Israeli government seem to have no idea. A contract worker is any worker, whether part time or full time, who works under a contract that circumvents Israeli labor law. Some of these workers receive wages below minimum wage, many do not receive a pension, and nearly all of them are missing out on at least one of their legal rights, including but not limited to reimbursement of transportation, vacation, sick leave and overtime pay.

There is a reason that we have labor laws. Elected officials enact labor laws on behalf of their constituents as a counterweight to a firm’s desire for strict gains. While it may not be desirable for an individual firm to give vacation days or a sick leave policy, we, the citizens of Israel have the right to enact such laws via our representative government and tell firms that if they want to do business in Israel, these are the rules.

Other labor laws serve not only to help workers in the short run, but also to help stabilize the economy in the long run. For example, the mandatory pension law is designed not only to ensure that all Israelis will be able to retire with dignity, but also to enable the government to ultimately cede the task of supporting the poor, a task that it currently does both begrudgingly and inadequately, to the individual workers. By undermining Israel’s labor laws and allowing employees to pay workers without putting money into their pension funds, Israelis risk not only the continued suffering of the elderly, but also the continued collective economic burden that payouts incur.

Finally, allowing employers to write contracts that circumvent Israeli law leads to lazy governance. For example, most people agree that Israel’s overtime policy, where overtime is paid based on hours worked per day, is excessive and unrealistic, as most jobs require and reciprocate with flexibility. A realistic alternative would be to change the law to mirror the labor laws of other countries, where overtime is paid for excessive hours worked per week or month. But since employers usually sign workers onto a contract for a “global salary,” meaning no overtime whatsoever, the matter never came before the Knesset and they never bothered changing the law. Consequently, instead of having a reasonable overtime policy, most Israelis receive no overtime pay at all.

Much of the media as well as the government claim that by turning contract workers into salaried workers, employers would lose the flexibility they need in order to hire additional labor for seasonal projects, end up giving tenure to more useless workers, and ultimately cost employers too much. In truth, this argument only applies to workers in companies with strong unions, such as the histadrut. For all other Israelis, Israel’s policy for firing a worker is not very strict at all, one day of notice per month with a max of a month’s notice. But if employers insist that following the law is too complicated, then at least some sort of compensation should exist.

To begin, all workers, contract and otherwise, should have a pension paid out of their salary. The pension law isn’t just about the worker; it’s about Isael’s economic stability and in an age of electronic transfers there is no reason why this cannot easily be done. Second, if an employer does not want to pay his employees benefits, then the government should establish a set percentage to be paid as compensation for vacation days and a sick policy. Finally, in order to make sure that all employees follow the laws mentioned above, it should be mandated that all wages should be stated to the potential employee excluding the additional pay for benefits. Just as a regular job quotes its salary figures in gross salary not including benefits, so too salaried workers should have their pay offered in terms of gross pay without benefits. This would also end the current situation where employers pay benefits as a part of a minimum wage, effectively paying their workers below minimum wage. This would also allow potential workers to see the payoff of a job in a consistent, understandable way so that the worker can know if the job is really worthwhile.

Allowing businesses to circumvent labors laws is not only immoral, but make every discussion about labor laws entirely irrelevant. If our Knesset members really believe that minimum wage is just an idea, that the pension law is only an option and that social terms are just a proposal, then they should say so. But if they believe that our labor laws aren’t just a suggestion, but the product of our representative democracy, then the only just thing is to tackle the problem of contract workers and bring order to a labor market plagued with anarchy.

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