The social justice movement in Israel celebrated an important victory Sunday when a bill requiring direct employment of teachers passed the Ministerial Committee on Legislation. Now, when the bill comes to the floor of the Knesset all members of the governing coalition are required to vote in favor.
Current law requires that employees receive benefits such as retirement pensions, continuing education credits, and vacation time. Contract workers, however, are excluded from these protections, creating a loophole that has created a second class of Israelis who lack financial security.
This week's victory comes in the midst of an intensive campaign spearheaded by the Coalition for Direct Employment - comprised of 30 social-change organizations including NIF grantees the Association for Civil Rights in Israel, the Worker's Hotline, and SHATIL - to put the issue of contract workers on the agenda of decision-makers and the public.
Nearly one-third of Israel's public-sector employees are contract workers. Unlike their civil-service colleagues, many of them lack job security and employment benefits, and are paid less than government workers doing the same jobs. At a hearing in the Knesset on June 11, Clara Benon Kirshner, a former eldercare contract worker who now supervises other caregivers, spoke passionately about the tenuous situation facing many contract workers.
"A caregiver can be fired every day, at any moment," Kirshner said. "She can go to work in the morning and be fired for no reason. I was fired because I refused to paint the house. Because I refused to work in gardening.(I was fired because) I refused to work on Shabbat. I was fired when they heard that I have a cat at home. I was fired because they accused me of stealing a lemon. It may sound funny, but it's not funny. A person goes to work in the morning and is fired."
SHATIL organizer Shira Eytan said the Knesset hearing was an important component of the awareness-raising campaign. "We got a lot of media coverage," she said. "It was a good opening to the committee discussion. And one of the major aims of the event was to get contract workers more involved in the coalition work, both in planning and execution. This was very successful."
Over 250 current and former contract workers and their supporters walked through the streets of Jerusalem before the hearing, and more than 100 present and former contract workers attended the hearing itself, which was hosted by MKs Haim Katz (Likud) and Micky Rosenthal (Labor).
Nir Shachar, a contractor who works as an urban planner in the Ministry of the Interior, testified at the hearing that he works "shoulder to shoulder with public workers doing the exact same job. People who walk in can't tell the difference, but we get less vacation days, no job security, longer hours, lower salary, less sick days, and no bonuses. We're second-class workers. When they get activities, trips, new chairs, we get nothing."
Dr. Varda Shiffer, a researcher at the Van Leer Institute specializing in the effects of privatization of government services, criticized the concept that some work is considered core and other work isn't—especially in the field of education, where teachers of "non-core" subjects, especially in the arts and humanities, are employed indirectly.
As the legislation on teachers advances through the Knesset, the Coalition is continuing to raise awareness among the public and decision makers in order to reduce the number of workers subject to uncertain contract employment.