Behind the Headlines the Weak Link

Israel’s current economic difficulties inevitably bring into sharper focus the problem of new immigrants’ employment and job-security. Publicly, officials prefer not to admit that a very real problem exists. But behind the scenes a small group of Cabinet Ministers, Histadrut leaders, Knesseters and senior Absorption Ministry officials are discussing it intensively, trying to solve the inherent contradiction between the socialist fundamental principle of “last in, first out” and the no less important principle–for Israel–of successful and equitable absorption of immigrants.

The socialist–in fact, syndicalist–principle of “last in, first out,” means that in the event of lay-offs or staff reductions, the last employee to be hired is the first to be fired. This principle has become an integral part of all labor contracts in Israel and has thereby acquired a strong and recognized legal status. Attempts to violate the principle are tantamount to breaches of the law. In many instances, the employes most recently hired are, naturally, new immigrants, and thus, they are the first candidates to be fired.

On the other hand, Israel–now more than ever–is energetically striving to attract newcomers. How can Israel settle the contradiction between its need for olim and the economic problems and labor laws which may put the olim in danger of repeated dismissals? The question is no longer merely hypothetical. The advent of incipient signs of recession have already shown that immigrants are the first to be asked to look for new jobs.

Avraham Hassan, chairman of the Absorption and Development Department of the Histadrut, confirms that during recent weeks he has been faced with several cases of dismissal notices handed to immigrant workers. The Absorption and Development Department has solved almost all these individual cases by direct contact with the employers.

VULNERABILITY OF NEW IMMIGRANTS

As a result of Hassan’s intervention, most of the employers concerned have agreed to rescind the dismissals. But Hassan–who himself came to Israel as an immigrant from Chile in 1954–admits that a general and more fundamental approach is needed to tackle the root problem nation-wide. In fact, the Histadrut, as well as a Knesset Committee have begun to examine possibilities of a general legislative solution, and a special government–Histadrut committee has been set up to consider the whole problem.

According to Hassan, the vulnerability of new immigrants on the labor market, highlighted with the current possibility of economic recession, has had previous expressions. Hassan explains that some employers consistently, as a matter of policy, fire immigrants after two years of employment in order to avoid their attaining tenure. Under Israeli law, a worker becomes permanent in his job if he is employed for more than two years; until then he is considered a temporary employe only. Temporary workers do not benefit from the full measure of Histadrut protection.

Moreover, Hassan adds, older immigrants are often discriminated against in job-hunting by employers who prefer younger local men. Hassan points out, too, that in some firms members of workers committees–most of Oriental origin-openly demonstrate hostility towards the Soviet and Western (Ashkenazi) newcomers.

Parallel with the Histadrut’s efforts to face the problems of immigrant employment, the Knesset’s Labor Committee is meanwhile embarking on a tentative but potentially revolutionary reappraisal of the hallowed principle of “last in, first out.” There is a growing realization among lawmakers and within concerned public opinion that if Israel truly seeks to attract immigrants, it must be able to offer them stable and secure employment.

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