The dirt in Herzliya's backyardBy Gideon Levy
Herzliya is a thriving and enlightened city whose name honors the man who envisioned the state. It has an impressive concentration of high-tech companies and restaurants, as well as a college, a marina and a budding theater company. The mayor, a woman and a member of Meretz, battles doggedly to keep a mall open on Shabbat. What more do you need? It is, undoubtedly, a cheering sight. But even Herzliya hides a different reality in its backyard - which is depressing, considering the picture of enlightenment presented by the city and its leaders.For years the city's streets were kept clean in part by some 60 Palestinians from Qalqilyah and its environs. Every day at 6 A.M. Ibrahim Azam, one of the group, would begin cleaning one of the city's neighborhoods with his broom and wheeled garbage can, getting rid of the Israelis' trash. At age 67, with seven children and 20 grandchildren, he had been sweeping Herzliya's streets since 1982. For 18 years he cleaned the city without ever being offered a glass of water or asked about his health. That's how it is here with foreign workers, they are like walking shadows. For most of that time he received starvation wages - NIS 40 for a seven-hour day, in violation of the minimum wage law. The municipality washed its hands of blame: Azam and his fellow workers were not municipal employees but were sent by a contractor (who appears in the municipality's correspondence as Abu Sabri). Of course they were also deprived of most of the social benefits to which they were entitled, since only a small proportion of the days they actually worked were recorded on their pay stubs.
This situation could have gone on forever - the Arabs cleaning, the contractor cleaning up and the municipality doing just fine - but for the intervention a year ago of Kav La'oved, a non-profit organization that helps foreign workers, which began writing to municipal officials demanding that the Qalqilyah sweepers get what they deserve and the city stop breaking the law. The debate went on for months. The workers' salaries went up early this year to NIS 60 and then to NIS 75 per day - still less than the minimum wage. Mayor Yael German says that she herself discovered the miserable salaries of the workers after speaking with a few of them on the street, and that she initiated the change. Indeed, the municipality did demand that the contractor pay minimum wage. He refused and was fired.
Fair and enlightened, no? Just one detail to spoil the celebration: As a result, all 60 workers were fired, the municipality hired a new contractor (who according to the Kav La'oved people is an Israeli straw man) and other workers are now sweeping Herzliya's streets. Who are they? Municipality spokeswoman Irit Weinberg did not know the answer; she promised to find out but never bothered calling back. Apparently there are more urgent matters in Herzliya.
Why does the municipality not hire the people who cleaned its streets so well for so many years? Why does it not employ them directly and pay them in accordance with the law? German claimed last week that it is the state employment service that is preventing the municipality from continuing to employ them; a short conversation with the Ministry of Labor and Social Affairs spokesman, Nahum Ido, showed that claim to be untrue: "If the municipality asks, it will get permission to hire them," he said. This was the same thing that the employment services told Kav La'oved officials. The mayor blamed the non-profit organization for interfering and causing the workers' dismissal: "Sad as it is," she wrote to them self-righteously last week, "it was indeed your intervention and mine that led to the dismissal of the contractor - and his workers as well."
Meanwhile, Ibrahim Azam sits at home. He is at retirement age, but no one has any intention of paying him a pension and he therefore needs that job. A man who for 18 years cleaned the streets of Herzliya is now unemployed in the streets of Qalqilyah, with no benefits. Most of his fellow street sweepers are younger than he and have young children to support. For them, the unemployment is even more cruel. In mid-July the contractor told them not to go to work and they have heard nothing more. They did not even receive their July salaries.
Did they deserve to be thrown out of work merely because they are Palestinian? Is it good for Israel to have another 60 out of work people sink into despair and bitterness in Qalqilyah, while they are replaced by foreign workers? Is the Herzliya municipality willing to employ them only under illegal, exploitative conditions? (Trade union officials in Qalqilyah told me last week that a few of the dismissed workers were returned to their jobs in Herzliya by the contractor Abu Sabri at the same terms, but with their hours doubled to create the impression of legal wages.) Has the time not come to stop the practice of hiring workers through exploitative contracts, at least by public bodies such as municipalities? And is it too much to expect different behavior from a mayor who is from Meretz?
The struggle against the ultra-Orthodox is important, the battle over the mall opening is heroic and admirable, but is the mayor completely disinterested in the fate of 60 dedicated Palestinian workers? And is this a matter of their fate only, or of our image as well