Mehalev: workfare in Israel, 2007

Prol-Position on the two-year trial of the Mehalev welfare reform scheme, and resistance to it in Israel.

In between raiding, shooting and leveling in Palastine and engaging in war/pre-war situations with Lebanon and Iran, the Israeli state is busy introducing its version of workfare and benefit cuts. The Hebrew name of the scheme is Mehalev, which stands for "from social security to secure employment". The movement against this scheme, calls itself Yad Al Halev - a word-play meaning "with a hand on the heart". The Mehalev scheme is currently in its trial stage in four areas of Israel and is facing huge opposition across the political spectrum - from the liberal politicians and NGO to the working class activists. This report outlines the new laws and gives an overview of their implementation, then outlines the opposition to it in general, and most specifically looks at the grass roots opposition being taken by a group of self-organised claimants and activists in Ashkelon, one of the four districts. But firstly a little background...

Background to Israeli situation
Since 1986 there has been a big push at privatisation. Since the 1990s the number of people receiving state unemployment benefits has increased two or three times. The percentage of the population working is relatively low due to a very high unemployment (officially 9 percent but much higher for certain sections of the population), a notable slice of the population in the army, students and a large under 18 population. Until the Intifada many Palestinians worked in Israel, but now this happens much less. There are some foreign workers from South East Asia and Romania; and illegal South American and African workers. Perhaps the scheme is best understood as a mechanism to cut back exploding expenditure on unemployment benefits.

Class Divisions in Israeli Society
The Ashkanasi Jews, mostly originating from Europe, make up the ruling class and the middle class professionals and intellectuals. The majority of the working class of Israeli Society are made up of four groups: Arabic Jews, Palestinian Israelis, recent Jewish immigrants and Orthodox Jews (from various origins).

The Arabic, or Mizrahi, Jews originating from Arabian countries, have traditionally made up the working class of Israel, along with the Palestinian Israelis.

These Arabic and Muslim people with Israeli passports and full citizen status (unlike the non-Israeli Palestinians) make up 15 to 18 percent of the population. Huge numbers of of these people are doing cash-in-hand work whilst signing on. Their strong family and community bonds mean that they alleviate their housing problems by building upwards and living together in houses. These buildings are however illegal and get periodically torn down again.

Since the 1990s there have been waves of Jewish immigrants from Russia, Ethiopia and other countries - adding up to 1 million new immigrants, and playing their part in the population increase of 5 to 7 million.

Orthodox Jews make up 18 to 20 percent of Israeli society - mostly children. They tend to have very large families, the men often don't work because they are 'studying' and the women work hard in low paid jobs. These women also tend to be reliably highly educated and companies know this and deliberately exploit this combination of the need for work, skill level and religion. Very recently Orthodox women started to work in the high tech industries for a minimum wage. For example Matrix, a large high-tech company set up a new factory near the orthodox settlement of Modiin Ilit, checking, modifying and coding computer programmes. They widely advertised their new jobs in a rabbi-approved workplace suitable for orthodox women, with Kosher food in the canteen etc. The pay was minimum wage and the working conditions were incredibly controlling in cooperation with the local rabbi. Some activists objected to this and did an action to close the factory by blocking the gates of the main office in Herzelia and doing a banner drop. The action was also exposing the links between the corporations and the West Bank colonisation.

The History of Mehalev
The scheme was devised by Netanyahu in 2003, when he was the finance minister under the Sharon government, 2002 - 2005, following Thatcher style policies. He was also Prime Minister of Israel and head of the right wing Likud Party from 1996 to 1999, Despite being introduced by the Prime Minister, the notoriously corrupt Olmert, and backed by his friend, the previous Minister for Employment, many parts of the government were officially opposed to the scheme. The Minister for National Security - who is actually responsible for the benefits system - spoke against the scheme, as did the new Minister for Employment, an Orthodox Party member. Many of the left-wing NGOs were also vocally against Mehalev. They objected to the privitisation of the social security services and the fact that the main target is people with disabilities and other vulnerable sectors of society.

However it was approved for a two-year trial in four areas, Ashkelon, Jerusalem, Hadera and Nazereth. It is being delivered by international private companies from the UK, Holland and the US, in partnership with Israeli temp agencies. They are namely: Maximus, an infamous US company; A4E-UK, a UK company successful in such schemes in Britain making its first international contract; and Calder and Agens from the Netherlands.

What the law means
It is targeting the long-term unemployed, the drug addicts, people with health problems (physical and mental) and the ex-prisoners. If you are in work and lose your job you get a certain kind of unemployment benefit, which has been drastically reduced over the years - both the time you can receive this benefit and who is eligible. Those claiming the UK equivalent of Income Support, or the German Unemployment Benefit II are put compulsorily onto the Mehalev scheme. In Shderot they took all those claiming income support. In Askelon they took people from specific area and put them on the scheme. The job centres are angry and aggressive places with fights breaking out every week - Israel is a small country and this tension makes things hard.

Currently those people are often getting 200 Shekels a month, the equivalent of about 30 Euros. An average secretary or electricians wage would be something like 7000 Shekels a month. An Israeli activist and part time worker for Commitment said "I have to say, I don't have a clue how these people survive". The cost of food alone would come to more than this. Under Mehalev to continue to get this measly amount you have to go to a temp agency five days a week for 30 hours!

After this you can be forced to work for free (you only continue to get the original 200 Shekels, not even the 1 Euro per hour extra offered under Hartz IV in Germany), Originally this 'skills improvement work' was supposed to be community work that others did not want to do. But of course it functions to lay off council workers and replace them with workfare people. There are people forced into work who are over 60 years old and who are physically and mentally sick. The scheme began with work such as park maintenance - then they started cleaning hospitals and streets, and finally the workfare people were sent to the army bases - despite there being little for them to do there.

Sending more people to the army is illogical. With all men doing three years and women doing two years in the army, and many people doing one month a year, there is simply not enough for everyone to do. Women mostly do not do active combat so they are already huge sections of the army doing administration, training, IT etc. One response of the workfare people sent to the army is to try to steal guns in order to sell them on. There were actions specifically against the army being part of the workfare programme - including a visit to Minister of Security's house. An old unionist and anti-privatisation lefty politician, originally opposed to Mehalev, he let them in and finally stopped the army placements.

The rhetoric is that the scheme helps people find long term work, but even those who do find work through the scheme go to temporary contracts. It is a small country with a lot of nepotism and hence networks between the local politicians, those running the Mehalev schemes and the companies benefiting from the new supply of forced cheap workforce. The Mehalev workers hold a lot of power over the people now, if you are rude to them, do not co-operate or cause and trouble or agitation your benefit could be stopped. You are expected to smile whist getting shafted. This fear, as well as the individualised way people are targeted and bullied is one of the limitations of the struggle against Mehalev .

The companies profits come from how many peoples benefits get stopped. Their target is at least 30 percent. Of course the rhetoric is that these people have found work, but actually what is often happening is that people are simply signing off. Basically, the amount of pressure and time Mehalev demands is not worth the money that one can receive. Some get as little as 200 Shekel, with extra on top if you have children, a disability etc. A normal income level might be between 1200- 3500 taking, for example a part time legal job to top up the income level.

Survival strategies
There are a lot of horror stories what it had done to people, of people signing off and having to make ends meet - by ducking and diving, turning to crime, taking low paid cash-in-hand jobs. The benefit level is so low anyway - that most people already had illegal work. They got scared of being found out, or of not being able to meet the scheme's requirements and work - and so were forced to sign off. Previous to the scheme many people bounced from one very low paid cash-in-hand job to the next, using the dole money to stabilise their situation - to help them survive - rather than living a life of ease at the expense of the tax payer. At least a little bit of guaranteed income - now those people are having to live on the meagre wages of the cash-in-hand work. This work is on construction sites, cleaning, child care, market stalls and small businesses. There is a common mentality of not paying taxes or declaring your work or business unless you have to. However, even this cash-in-hand work could often only bring in 3000 Shekels a month - ie not enough to live on. The minimum wage is set at 3800 Shekels and a full time semi-professional salary would be between 6000 and 8000.

There is a big gap between what the money one needs, and the money one gets in this situation. This is further compounded by the decreasing amount of public housing.

The fight back
Mehalev has been hugely unpopular and "everyone hates them, but they can't stop them because they are afraid of loosing their dole money". There have been actions inside the centres and Town Halls - complete with graffiti.

There are various national NGOs who started a campaign to end the Mehalev scheme. As the trails go on the radical self organised groups are still taking this approach, but some of the NGOs are trying to campaign for changes to the details of the scheme, to make it a little less harsh. Some of the NGO are aware of the conflict between on one hand having too much to lose to really support the unemployed if they want to be very radical and on the other hand not wanting to advocate or push people into actions that might result in their benefit being stopped.

Some of the groups active against Mehalev in Jerusalem are:

- Community Advocacy - a community support and campaigning organisation who have been active on a neighbourhood level for 14 years.

- Commitment for Peace and Social Justice [Commitment] - an independent campaigning and research NGO run by lefty, social democratic intellectuals. They have also been playing a key role supporting some of the grass roots groups - although not without the usual complications of merging the legal NGO and the radical autonomous groups.

The long-term unemployed in Nazareth are most­ly Palestinian Israeli. There is a strong workers organisation, headed by communist activists. Their spontaneous response to Mehalev was to burn down the office. Ironically the local municipality is run by the official Communist Party. The workers organisation of Nazereth is however no supporter of the community municipality. Ironically these communist local politicians actually lobbied to have Mehalev - arguing that not introducing scheme in their area was anti Palestinian discrimination. However, once it did start in their area they too became very critical.

The main resistance to Mehalev in Hadera is headed by a few NGOs. One is Alon, a group focusing mainly on education in schools. The members are often young people doing Civil Service, before or instead the army. They are supposed to go to the army after the civil service for a while, but most don't.

Another is Rabbi's for Peace and there is Hakeshet hademocratit hamizrahit (Arabic Jewish) group focusing on human rights and cultural issues.

Ashkelon and Shderot are small cities close to the Gaza border, Sderot is regularly bombed by Palestinians. It is the trial area that has enjoyed the most vibrant and self-organised struggle against Mehalev . There was a big action on the first day of the Mehalev programme, gluing shut the doors to the office and leafleting outside.

The scheme is based in this neighbourhood made up of Arab-Jews and some Russians. It is an area based on fishing and most of the working class poor are fishermen in the summer. Some of them are also junkies, but overall it is a strong community. These community links formed the base of the struggle - and new connections were formed on top of this. A self-organised group of activists, calling themselves Ma'ane Enoshi [Human response] has emerged - forming new solidarities in the neighbourhood.

The group has been inspired by one woman, Ronit, who is spearheading the community actions. One of the fishing community, she was forced onto the scheme. She struggled hard at each turn and the Mehalev office came down heavy.

Along with others they looked for ways to struggle - but in Ashkelon there were no NGOs taking up the campaign. They founded Ma'ane Enoshi. The group does a lot of work helping people make appeals against their benefits being stopped - such as writing letters. Some people are afraid to make appeals as they don't want to be seen as trouble makers and thereby jeopardise all their benefits. The problem is that the struggle is too often reduced to this individual level - the individual appeal and the individual confrontation with the Mehalev agency. Ma'ane Enoshi have links to the Commitment NGO mentioned earlier - giving them a legitimacy and access to certain resources and legal frameworks.

Ronit's appeal for 1000 Shekel (about 140 Euros) has proceeded past the tribunals to the civil courts and she has ended up loosing her home. She was taken in by another member of Ma'ane Ehoshi and has received huge support from everyone.

Also in Ashkelon the true colours of the scheme were revealed when the deputy mayor made a deal with the owner of a local textile factory. It was situated 80 kilometres away and people were forced to go and work for free for two weeks - before all being fired again. The group did a little action against this factory too. One strategy of those involved in Ma'ane Ehoshi is simply to cause trouble in their allocated work places until they are kicked out again.

What next?
The two years trail period for the scheme is soon over. The NGO lead campaigns trying to stop this program or at least making some radical changes - for example stopping the right of private companies administering the scheme to stop people's dole money. They say only the government agencies should have that authority. 80 out of the 120 Members of Parliament have signed supporting these changes.

The groups in Nazereth and Askelon are clearly saying fuck off to Mehalev and using their own community networks to fight back and to support each other. Of course the awareness of how much worse things are just over the wall in Palestine (where the Israeli army is once again using Palestinian human shields for cover during raids - including old men stripped naked) affects the feeling of any such struggle in Israel. Never the less - solidarity and radical activism with the Israeli working class could be a more affective way of not only achieving a better living and a break on the next offensive against the working class, but also of a achieving peace.