Wisconsin and the Triple Crime
Why did the so-called Wisconsin program fail, and why are similar programs from Bibi Productions Ltd. also likely to fail? The answer is to be found in the employment policies of the state.
Why did the so-called Wisconsin program fail, and why are similar programs from Bibi Productions Ltd. also likely to fail? The answer is to be found in the employment policies of the state. The state, according to the vision of Prime Minister Benjamin (Bibi) Netanyahu, is run as an import-export company, and thus the triple crime is committed: Firstly, the state decided that industry is out and hi-tech is in. The state therefore canceled the quotas that protected local industry such as the food and textile industries, making them “uncompetitive.” Some of these industries simply collapsed, and some were transferred to states with a cheaper workforce such as Jordan and China, where the owners enjoy enormous profits – leaving thousands of workers in Israel without a job.
Secondly, for industries that could not be transferred overseas such as construction, agriculture and nursing, the state imported cheap migrant labor, employed under slave terms as an indirect subsidy to agriculture and contractors. Again, thousands of Israelis ended up in the unemployment lines.
Thirdly, after allowing jobs to disappear, decision-makers suddenly realized that too many people were receiving unemployment benefits. So they decided to import manpower companies to operate the Wisconsin program, so that these companies too would make a tidy profit at the expense of the unemployed.
At the same time, the privatization drive, with the state selling off its assets, continues unabated to the great joy of the tycoons – the politicians’ dearest friends. One result of this situation is the breaking of organized labor and the growth of manpower contractors who are benefiting from a “flexible” and easily-exploited labor market. Many of those who found work also found themselves among the working poor, earning minimum wage – tantamount to a starvation wage approved by the law – without job security or social benefits. All this is part of the state’s attempt to avoid responsibility for the job market. It’s no surprise that Israel is in first place among western states regarding gaps between rich and poor and the rate of poverty, which today stands at around 20%.
If the Wisconsin program had been run in a job market that offers jobs, the program might not have aroused so much antagonism. But in the current situation, the program operators have no choice but to send jobseekers out into an exploitative market. Wisconsin supporters claim that the program’s success can be seen in the number of placements (18,000 were sent to jobs via the program, they say). This claim should be carefully examined. Firstly, most program participants were sent to jobs offering minimum wage or less, and thus the jobs did not help them escape the cycle of poverty. Most positions were temporary, lasting an average of seven months, as the Ministry of Industry, Trade and Labor has noted. Many other positions were part-time. Program participants agreed to the positions under harsh employment terms because of the threat of losing their income support – thus most participants did not become independent members of the work force but continued to be reliant on the program.
Secondly, many of the unemployed who came to the Workers Advice Center (WAC) offices in Jerusalem, Hadera and Nazareth said that the company operating the program told them to submit wage slips to that company even when they had found employment by themselves. Thus there is room to suspect that the companies presented wage slips to the state as if they had made placements, thus inflating placement numbers and receiving bonuses of at least NIS 20,000 per month. The state also had an interest in adding these placements to the statistics testifying to the program’s success. As the Holyland affair plays out in the media, we are reminded that corruption is not a stranger to this land.
Worse than the corruption is the mockery this makes of our intelligence. Nothing is more infuriating than learning how the government wastes huge sums in persuading local employers to take on local workers while at the same time blocking the creation of jobs. We have just learned that the state approved the import of a further 3,700 migrant workers (mostly from Thailand) for the agriculture industry, to “solve” the farmers’ problems. The farmers are complaining that they lack manpower, as usual. However, we at WAC continuously visit various businesses and try to persuade the farmers to take on Arab women for a minimum wage. Arab women, it must be recalled, are supposedly one of the “target groups” of the Wisconsin program. The farmers mostly refuse, saying they don’t need the workers – they have enough Thai laborers. The result is 83% unemployment among Arab women, expressed in poverty rates of some 50% among Israel’s Arab population.
It’s a simple formula: if the employers and manpower agencies are to make a profit, someone has to pay – and that “someone” is currently the unemployed. After the documentary film “Wisconsin” (directed by Jonathan Ben-Efrat) was broadcast on the Yes-Docu channel, a woman from Hadera called me greatly excited. This woman, aged 32, was a participant in the Wisconsin program and was sent to work via a manpower contractor as a guard at the Ramat Aviv shopping mall. There, she often had to work double shifts for minimum wage. “They destroyed my motivation,” she said. She had enough sense to get out of the program. At present she is preparing for accountancy exams. How many others, stuck in the program, could also be progressing like this woman? How many other opportunities are missed because of the state’s stubborn insistence on a labor policy that prefers private capital over investing in human capital?
The unemployed and various social organizations are overjoyed by the closure of the Wisconsin program, which was intended for the whole country. We too worked hard to ensure that the program would not last. But despite the failure of the program, the state refuses to stop the privatization of the labor market as part of a general policy of privatization. Netanyahu has already declared that he intends to present a new program which will be a similar beast in a different guise.
Instead of coming out against the unemployed, the state must encourage industry and the creation of jobs. Companies that retain their management in Israel while sending production overseas must be taxed so that this operating structure yields no benefit to them. The state must also stop the import of migrant labor. It is convenient for the state to blame the “illegal foreign workers” for taking jobs from local workers. But the truth is that the state itself took the jobs and imported some 100,000 legal migrant laborers who are willing to work for around NIS 13 an hour, which local workers cannot accept and are not supposed to accept, according to the law. Furthermore, the state must invest in serious vocational training and educational programs for the unemployed – the same training program it foisted onto the Wisconsin operators in a thin, under-invested form.
If it does this, the state will be able to face its citizens guiltlessly, and offer places of work worthy of the name. Moreover, if it does this, programs like Wisconsin will be redundant.
The writer is coordinator for the organization Wisconsin-Watch for the workers organization WAC