Gil Bar-Tal (54) is not yet known to the general public, but about a quarter of a million employees know him very well. The fights he engages in, and the decisions he makes have a direct impact on those employees’ lives. Bar-Tal is the Chairman of Histadrut Hamaof workers union representing both private and public sector employees: those include employees of banks, insurance companies, health maintenance organizations, government companies, municipalities, chain stores, child care assistants, athletes, and more.

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Arnon Bar-David, Chairman of the Histadrut trade union, served as Chairman of Histadrut Hamaof until a couple of years ago. Bar-Tal was elected to replace Bar-David.

Gil Bar-Tal, Chairman of Histadrut Hamaof workers union (Photo: Ilan Bshor)

Bar-Tal believes that “a person’s job is second only to their health. If a person cannot make a good living, it can also impact their health and happiness. It is our job to ensure that this actually happens”.

According to Bar-Tal, the challenge he now faces is: “bringing as many people as possible back into employment and supporting the recovery of Israeli economy to pre-pandemic levels. I represent workers, but if the economy will recover to pre-pandemic levels employers will need more workers. Some groups we represent, such as employees of nurseries and the Israel Nature and Parks Authority, suffered greatly as a result of the pandemic, whereas other sectors flourished during that period”.

The trade union’s role in a post-pandemic world

Working from home has advanced by leaps and bounds during the Covid-19 pandemic, and this field requires regulation.

The entire issue is a very complex one. On the one hand, Bar-Tal describes an employer such as AIG – a US company that declared one day that none of its employees will be allowed back to the office. According to Bar-Tal, this company declared that work cannot be conducted at the office “by splitting the workforce into “capsules”; rather, everything had to be carried out from home. Everybody was supposed to shut themselves at home and work from home”.

At that point the question has arisen of what rights employees who work from home have. Can employees demand reimbursement of fixed or variable expenses? Some costs were borne by the employees, but now workers are expected to pay them – electricity, municipal taxes, internet connection, subsistence, etc.

יו"ר הסתדרות המעו"ף, גיל בר-טל, בהפגנת סייעות מול בית הדין הארצי לעבודה בירושלים (צילום: הסתדרות המעו"ף)

“The employees wanted to be compensated for those expenses”, said Bar-Tal, “but the company refused to pay. Over time we reached an agreed compromise, and the management realized that it has to provide employees with the equipment they require for their work, such as a computer, keyboard, and a chair and a table that will be convenient to work from; however, the company refused to repay the cost of electricity, water and food; they gave approximately 500 dollars per employees, and this situation is still ongoing.”

On the other hand, according to Bar-Tal some companies force employees to work only from the office. “The employees say that they have a right to work from home, which is what they got used to doing”. The question now is do employees have the right to demand continuing working from home?”

Who demands that?
“We see that with people working for banks, call centers, public sector employees and employees of government companies.”

Why do employers object to that?
“The employers claim that when they employ you in a customer call center, with a professional atmosphere, supervision and assistance, you perform better; your productivity increases. There are call centers with invigorating music, and there are silent call centers; some call centers only use texting by chats to communicate with customers. It’s the employer’s decision. We started negotiations in the private sector and all sort of questions were raised about what constitutes ‘working from home’.

What type of questions?
“First of all, you can also work from a coffee shop, or from the park, so this is not necessarily about working from home. This is about working remotely. What separates work time from resting time? When you login remotely, there is an expectation that you will be constantly available to work.

"So, on the one hand, it offers flexibility, because, for instance, you can logout at lunchtime and then login again later. But the employer also expects you to be available during your breaks, holidays and recreational hours.

“What is the most convenient environment to work in? When the children interrupt you at home? Or maybe working remotely saves travel time and other wasted time and allows people to focus. There is also the issue of car maintenance.”

How, for example, can an employer supervise an employee’s performance?
“This is where the employee’s right for privacy and the employer’s rights to secure the work space, and to supervise, monitor and protect the organization against cyber attacks are introduced. Employers can very easily monitor the employees in order to know when they login and logout and maybe track their internet surfing and the use they make of websites – all this with the excuse that the employer has to protect its network from cyber attacks.

"The question arises of how to check working hours without invading into the employer’s private life and checking the websites he uses? Maybe we should switch to methods that measure productivity.

There are also questions about workers’ ability to be promoted in an organization. A person who works remotely most of the time disconnects from the social network at work and from what is happening in the organization itself. Such an employee does not know if there are available positions in the organization; he distances himself in social terms and loses the human contact. There are also questions around who is in charge of the safety and health of those who work remotely. Is the house the safest place to work in? Will the National Insurance Institute recognize a work accident that happens in that space?”

Will the National Insurance Institute recognize such an accident as a work accident?
“Time will tell how the National Insurance Institute, insurance companies and the courts will interpret the scope of work from home and the compensation for work accidents. Is it really possible to separate each and every action taking place at home? Now I am at the office and now I am not? Or between the hours during which I am at work and the rest of the day during which I am not at work?

"There are also questions about professional training, related terms, social security, staff bonding days. There is a concern that the employees will lose their status as employees and the engagement with their work place. This is something we want to avoid.”

With whom do you work on regulating this field?
“We are in the process of exchanging drafts with the Manufacturers Association of Israel, and we hope to reach good agreements that will be recognized as part of a round table participated by the government, the employers and the Histadrut trade union. Currently, we are also holding negotiations with the government that published unilateral directives on remote working; those directives are currently reconsidered as part of negotiations between the Histadrut and the officer in charge of pay in the Ministry of Finance.”

What does the government want?
“It wants employees to work remotely, but only within a limited number of days and while retaining the power to decide who shall be employed remotely and how frequently those employed in this manner will work remotely. Some employers prefer to employ people remotely for more than one day a week, and perhaps half days – to start working at the office and continue with working remotely. For instance, when missiles were fired into some parts of Israel, sometimes working remotely was a good and effective solution and employees and employers were ready to implement it.”

“In the case of entities such as the government and the public sector, when you decide that one day a week will be dedicated to working from home, you divided half a million employees into five days – 20% per day. Think of the consequences of such a decision. The government hopes to save the traffic congestion, the money spent on fuel, resources and travel. The employee will not have to spend a couple of hours a day travelling to and from work; he/she will be more effective. Currently they also discuss the fact that such work format also saves space. Employers will need to lease less office space.”

And you want to work under that format only once a week? Not more than that?
 “On the contrary; the Histadrut encourages remote working and wants to advance it. As far as we are concerned more than one day a week is possible, but it is important for us to regulate this issue; we want to regulate the issue of employee rights.”

“Increase the minimum wage, reduce working hours”

What are the Histadrut’s targets for the next government budget?
“The Histadrut works to increase the minimum wage. Research shows that a higher minimum wage contributes to productivity, drives the economy, increases employees’ commitment and the engagement with the workplace and – first and foremost – maintains workers ability to earn a decent living. I also think that it contributes to social stability, because large gaps in pay unsettle society.

“We also want to reduce the number of working hours and increase productivity per each working hour. We know that productivity in Israel is 20% lower compared to the OECD. One way of achieving that may be having 6 or 7 long and concentrated weekends in which Sundays will not be working days. If people will not work on those Sunday, we will all have a day off. Research shows that a long weekend, in which everybody does not work is a way to drive the economy.

"The long weekend has a social value – the entire family spends time together – everybody is off work on the same day. This enables people to go on domestic holidays, go shopping, engage in cultural and recreational activities and drive the economy in an orchestrated manner. I don’t think that everything will happen immediately. It will take time, but once the economy recovers slightly, these things may be implemented.”

Bar-Tal uses humor quite a lot. His office is full of games, pictures and even lollypops. “Humor is a way to release pressures. I opted to use it as a way to connect on a human level, to release unnecessary stress. I am doing my best to be humble. My moto is that I work for the employees and I need to provide them a service; on the day I was elected for the job I knew that this is where I am going to.”

גיל בר-טל, יו״ר הסתדרות המעו״ף (צילום: יונתן בלום)

How does Histadrut Hamaof provides services to workers it represents on a day-to-day basis, beyond the occasional fight for employee rights?
“We provide a package of services in all spheres of life: trade union, training, cultural and recreational activities, wellbeing and healthy lifestyle. We do those activities through associations such as Maof La-Amit, the associations for professional promotion, the “Shelcha” club, and the “Shelcha La’Gimlai” club, the “Rom”, “Minhal” and “Reut” advanced study funds, the College of Management Academic Studies, and the “Hadarim” fund.”

Surely you have workers who are not happy with Hamaof’s achievements.
 "I serve my masters – members of Histadrut Hamaof. We work in harmony for many hours, focusing on many tasks. Sometimes we agree with each other. Sometimes we disagree, and sometimes we have to adjust our expectations to what we can realistically achieve.

“I know that at the end of the day workers need to be happy, and I work very hard with heads and members of workers' committees to make it happen. I benefit from the Histadrut’s strength and from what an organization with such power can give people. I think that the Histadrut’s image among the public has improved greatly under Arnon-Bar David’s leadership.