Citing the pandemic, the government has backed out of their 2015 deal with the Histadrut ensuring direct and long-term employment of hospital cleaning staff. According to the Histadrut, the last few months have seen a dramatic rise in hiring of contracted hospital workers, allegedly due to pandemic emergency regulations. These workers are hired from outsourced cleaning companies on short term contracts, and often face high job instability with frequent firings and re-hirings. 

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Ariel Yaakobi, head of the union for public sector workers in the Histadrut, told Davar that the Histadrut is ready to fight back against the government. Workers at Israeli hospitals, most of which are public, are considered public sector workers. 

"We will use all the means at our disposal to ensure that these workers will be employed directly," he said, adding that the union is already taking steps to prevent the hiring of dozens of workers on temporary contracts at the Wolfson Medical Center in Holon. 

In July 2015, the government and Histadrut reached an agreement to minimize short-term contracts in the public sector. Under the agreement, the government committed to stopping short-term employment in public hospitals altogether. Since 2015, approximately 2,000 cleaners have been hired by the hospitals under direct contracts. 

A celebration marking the hiring of contracted workers as direct employees of the Hillel Yaffe Medical Center in Hadera. (Oren Cohen/Histadrut Public Relations)

The pandemic has caused the demand for hospital workers to rise considerably, leading the government to cancel its promise to cease short-term employment methods in an effort to hire more workers. Ilan Shimoni, head of the Israeli Organization of Cleaning Companies, told Davar that as of today, thousands of cleaners are employed in public hospitals on short-term contracts. 

“There’s a strange combination of both short-term and permanently employed cleaners. The hospitals have quite simply failed to recruit their own cleaners, so they have to rely on outsourced cleaning services like ours,” Shimoni said. 

One of the consequences of widespread outsourced cleaning services in public hospitals is that cleaners are not eligible for early vaccination, since the cleaners are not employed by the hospitals but rather by private cleaning companies. The Histadrut has called on the government to provide contracted cleaners with vaccination priority, but so far no agreement has been reached.

Daniel Cohen, head of the workers’ union at Wolfson, told Davar that his hospital was run without outsourced cleaning services up until the outbreak of COVID-19. 

“Since the crisis began, we’ve gone back to seeing outsourced cleaning services everywhere,” he said, adding that these workers are often placed in wards unrelated to coronavirus. 

The Wolfson union has begun a campaign against management's intention to hire cleaning workers for the new children's ward through a contractor, instead of directly hiring them. The contract with the cleaning company was signed quickly after a speedy bidding process between companies, which was specifically allowed by the government in order to meet rising demands for workers during the pandemic. 

“The hospital management has told us that they are unable to take on new cleaners on permanent contracts, despite their petitions to the Ministry of Health throughout the year. We had no choice but to begin labor dispute procedures, and we are currently negotiating with the hospital management," said Cohen. 

The use of outsourced cleaning services is particularly noteworthy in light of the Ministry of Health’s decision to boost funding for hospitals during the pandemic. Following the health workers’ strike last July, the ministry pledged funds for the hiring of an additional 2,000 nurses, but failed to provide funding for additional cleaners. The Histadrut warned that this decision would lead to a rise in short-term employment in public hospitals as a short-term cost-saving measure.

Yaakobi told Davar that he intends to fight the government's withdrawal from the 2015 agreement.

"Short-term employment in public hospitals is illegal and violates the agreement the government signed with the unions six years ago," he emphasized. "The agreement granted hospital cleaners stability, certainty and opportunities for promotion.”

Erez Ofinkaro of the Histadrut claims that the hospitals’ withdrawal from the agreements violates guidelines issued by the Civil Service Commission in 2017, which forbids the public hospitals to hire outsourced workers to work alongside permanent employees.  

“Cleaning workers in government hospitals are an integral part of hospital administration. In breach of past agreements, the government is using the crisis as an excuse to cut corners and hire contracted services for hospital cleaning,” said Eli Badash, head of the union for public hospital workers. “Anyone who receives treatment at these facilities should recognize the importance of the cleaning staff. If necessary, we will take the dispute a step further and demand the government rehires all new cleaners on permanent contracts."

The Wolfson Medical Center maintains that the hospital "operates under the guidelines of the Ministry of Health and the Medical Centers Division."