Abusive Employment Practices at the Israeli Antiquities Authority
by Erez Wagner
Dozens working for the Israel Antiquities Authority (IAA) at the archaeological site of Ras al-Amud near Jerusalem were summoned on January 8, 2009 by a representative of Brik, the personnel firm through which they were employed. He told them that all who had worked for more than nine months would not be hired in the future. Four days later, workers at the Um Tuba site, all Brik employees, were told the same thing. None received a letter of dismissal. This, it turns out, is standard procedure at Brik: verbal dismissals without warning.
The laborers, East Jerusalemites between the ages of 45 to 55, had been working for years at IAA sites; now they have lost their livelihood. In despair they turned to a Brik recruiter but received the same reply: everyone who had worked more than nine months was to be dismissed. On visiting the Employment Service in East Jerusalem, however, they saw Brik representatives interviewing candidates for their jobs. Indeed, from a report submitted to the Jerusalem Labor Court it emerged that in the month of their dismissal, January 2009, Brik asked the Employment Service for no less than 70 new laborers. The Service responded by sending Brik 93 candidates.
The misconduct is both Brik's and the IAA's. Both are attempting to evade Article A12 of the Amendment to the Law on Manpower Companies, which went into effect on January 1, 2008. It stipulates that after nine months with a personnel firm, workers must be directly employed by the body for which they are doing the work (in this case, the IAA). The Amendment's aim is to set a time limit for employment via personnel firms, where the work is unstable and lacks social benefits. The Brik laborers should have become IAA employees in October 2008, receiving benefits as set by collective agreements.
After the legislation was passed, the IAA held internal discussions aimed at circumventing it. These included CEO Shuka Dorfman. In March 2008, Ha'aretz reporter Ruti Sinai reported that "According to high-ranking officials in the Authority, it was made clear that workers must be dismissed in order to ensure that they do not receive social benefits such as severance pay, and new ones should be employed who will also be laid off after nine months." Shlomo Ashkenzai, Vice CEO and a relative of Brik's owner, Eli Hen, took part in these discussions as well.
Despite the layoff, 21 of the workers decided not to give up. Because Histadrut dues had been deducted monthly from their salaries, they turned to the East Jerusalem branch of the Histradrut requesting legal aid. It emerged that the Histadrut had never received the fees. The workers discovered they were ineligible for aid.
Undeterred, they joined WAC in East Jerusalem and started receiving legal aid to overturn the collective layoff. Since then, they and WAC have been fighting to obtain a precedent concerning the employment of manpower employees. There are almost 300,000 of these in Israel from all ethnic groups—10% of the labor force. The result of this action will affect all.
After legal counseling, the laborers decided unanimously to file a petition for an injunction against the collective layoff. They demanded recognition as full-fledged IAA workers. All the dismissed laborers meet the criteria set forth in the Amendment. Moreover, Brik's authority to dismiss them is questionable: in accordance with the Amendment, they were already IAAl employees on the day Brik fired them.
An internet search for Brik yields no website or address, but it does yield citations of law suits by former employees against the firm, with complaints of illegal dismissal and abusive employment. In October 2008, for example, 15 Brik employees who had requested social benefits found themselves fired; they turned to Kav LaOved (Ha'aretz, February 21 2008).
After the 21 workers and WAC filed the petition for a prohibitory injunction, the joint conduct of Brik and the IAA came to light. The IAA claims that the Amendment is not applicable, because the workers are not full-time. They also claim that even if the law were to apply, making them IAA employees, no collective agreements would apply, and they would not enjoy the benefits that other employees do. The intent is to narrow the law's applicability, making it null and void for hundreds of thousands of manpower workers.
In the first court session on February 8, the Brik attorney claimed that the laborers had not been fired, for they had never received letters to that effect. An IAA representative corroborated this, adding that they had not been fired; rather, they had been told not to report because the heavy rains prevented any digging. We should note, however, that three days before the court session, some of the men were ordered to come work; on the job, they were pointedly asked whether they would work on the day of the court session. The clear implication was this: those who agreed to forgo the lawsuit would be reinstated. When the men replied in the negative, they were told to wait for further instructions concerning their jobs.
In the second court session on March 22, the workers gave a detailed account of abusive practices by Brik and the IAA. There is deliberate overstaffing, they said, in order to force the workers to beg for jobs and keep mum about violations. One product of the overstaffing is a daily ritual: on finishing work, the men gather and are told who won't be hired the next day. When they are not among the fortunate, they aren't present on the following day to hear whether there will be work or not. Both literally and figuratively in the dark, they have to report at 5 a.m. in front of the Rockefeller Museum in East Jerusalem. This is the departure point to the various excavations. Often they show up at the Rockefeller only to learn that there is no work.
The Amendment to the Law on Personnel Companies was passed to prevent indefinite employment without the provision of full social benefits; it was also meant to safeguard workers who complain about abuses. Israel's own public institutions should be the first to implement this law. Yet the IAA, under the auspices of the Ministry of Education, cooperates with Brik, in effect sidestepping the Amendment. If the workers succeed in this case, they will create a legal precedent enabling 300,000 manpower workers to gain their legal rights.
Etgar, Challenge's sister magazine in Hebrew, has addressed these claims to both Brik and the Israel Antiquities Authority. There has been no response.
On April 24, 2009, WAC will hold a solidarity concert in behalf of Brik workers. For information, tickets and donations, please visit the Etgar website.