Since the beginning of the Covid-19 crisis, private-sector unions have had to deal with many workers sent on unpaid leave and the ramifications of the abrupt decline in economic activity for those who remained at work. They are facing the tension between the need to help the companies' economic recovery and the struggle to prevent excess prices paid by the workers due to the economic crisis.
Yehiel Shaman, chairman of the Pelephone workers' council: "We are the only anchor employees have"
"As a workers' council, we demand that most of the employees who are on furlough return immediately to work," says Shaman. "When it comes to the more complex cases, such as the service centers at malls which are currently closed, we are already demanding that they prepare for reopening, fully staffed."
"During the pandemic, we fought to reduce the number of employees who were put on furlough. We requested that the decision to put any worker on furlough will be taken through dialogue with the council. We took it to the Labour Tribunal, to make clear that the company must negotiate with us and cannot act unilaterally."
The agreement reached by the union and the management allowed for employees defined as nonessential to choose between furlough or using up annual paid leave, similar to the public sector model.
Shaman says that the council is currently working on establishing a mutual guarantee fund for paid leave days, which will help distribute vacation days fairly. "At the same time, the committee maintains contact with all employees, including those who were sent on unpaid leave, and we have established a call center that is in touch with all our workers and members to assess their needs and well-being during this crucial time," he said.
Shaman believes that the government's policy that encouraged employers to put most of their workers on furlough instead of encouraging them to keep on as many workers as possible, even for part-time work, was a mistake.
"It's wrong for employers to abandon their commitment to workers in times of crisis, or exploit the crisis for savings at the expense of workers," he said. "It is incomprehensible that employers can hold employees hostage to receive a state grant, cynically exploiting the situation."
"There are certain companies which have used this moment to introduce cuts planned before the crisis," he warns. "This is something that could cause significant social unrest in Israel. We have a great responsibility as a union towards the public. We are the only anchor employees have, the last refuge, the last check points protecting workers in the workplace."
Ronnie Raz, chairman of Clal Insurance's worker's council: "When companies have a good two months, they don't rush to hand out bonuses, but when there are bad months, they spin it quickly on to the workers."
"It's not an easy time," says Raz. "There are certain places where there really is no work. Travel insurance for instance."
He also fears employers might take advantage of the situation to push for layoffs or pay cuts, which might trigger pay cuts across the industry: "When companies have a good two months, they don't rush to hand out bonuses, but when there are bad months, they spin it quickly on to the workers."
According to him, the first thing the union had to deal with was reducing the number of employees sent on unpaid leave. The number of workers sent off eventually reached 600 – 15% of the company's personnel. "We also struggled but managed to ensure that those workers continue to receive all the provisions during this period: training fund, vehicle, telephone, pension fund. The committee and CEO also agreed on a bonus distribution for outstanding employees of the company," he said.
The workers committee established a relief fund for workers in need. "For example, we bought computers for workers who needed it to work from home."
Ophir Harpaz, Chairman of Visa CAL Employees Committee: "Workers' councils should be proactive in addressing workers and looking for real solutions"
At the CAL credit card company, the union and the executive management both agreed on the importance of keeping most of the employees employed from an early stage.
"We were among the first to announce that anyone who wants to work from home could do so, and would receive full pay," says Harpaz. "More than two-thirds of the company chose to work from home. The rest of the workers chose either to go on unpaid leave or use up their vacation days."
According to Harpaz, "At most, only 10% of employees left on furlough. Today, there are less than ten, with the latter having already returned to work. Even those who left continued to receive social security contributions and collective health insurance."
Unlike other companies, which have already used extensive work from home, for CAL, Harpaz says, it was a sharp transition. "There were indeed on-callers, and people who would ad-hoc solve problems from home. But now, because of health concerns, we all preferred to work from home even in positions where this had never been done before," he said. "Lots of service reps, for example, worked from home, and handled customer inquiries from there."
Harpaz points out that at least in the short term, remote work is going to continue. "If only for the reason that 100% of employees cannot be accommodated within the office today while adhering to Ministry of Health guidelines. I aim to reach 100% employment for all CAL employees."
Harpaz notes the significant cooperation that created during this period between the union, management and the CEO, which has also allowed the bonuses and raises for workers dictated by the collective agreement not to be affected, even due to the pandemic.
"Workers' councils should be pro-active in addressing workers and looking for real solutions. People live in the sense of uncertainty, and when they have our shoulder to lean on, they feel more secure," he said.
Brought to press with the help of the International Relations Division of the Histadrut