Three hundred cleaners held a protest in front of the government compound in Tel Aviv earlier this month to protest their stagnating wages and Minister of Economy Orna Barbivai’s refusal to sign an extension order that would raise their salaries by six shekels ($1.87) per hour. According to the Histadrut, cleaners’ wages have not been raised for eight years.

Acceptance constitutes acceptance of the Website Terms of Use

In November, the Histadrut signed a wage increase agreement with the Israel Organization of Cleaning Companies, an employers’ organization representing around 200 cleaning companies that collectively employ around 80,000 workers. The agreement has cleaners’ minimum wage raised to be 122% of Israel’s current minimum wage of 29.12 shekels ($9.06) hourly. Cleaners with special training and those who supervise other employees are also entitled to additional pay. But in order for the agreement to be implemented, the Minister of Economy must sign an extension order, which would also apply the wage increase to workers employed by companies outside the Israel Organization of Cleaning Companies.

300 workers protested the delay in wage increases outside the Tel Aviv municipality on Monday, March 13.

“Cleaning industry workers can’t make ends meet,” Veronica Rosenberg, General Director of the Israel Organization of Cleaning Companies, said at the rally. “They are collapsing under the cost of living. The keys to solving the problem are with Minister Orna Barbivai, who is ignoring the plight of the industry, and hasn’t responded to our many inquiries.”

Rosenberg explained that in effect, the government determines cleaners’ wages, since the state is the main consumer of cleaning services in the economy.

“The state won’t pay one shekel above the minimum wage and it sentences workers in the industry to a life of poverty. We will fight until the expansion order is signed,” Rosenberg said.

“I am a mother to six children and I have six grandchildren. I pay more than 3,000 shekels ($934) in rent every month and my salary barely reaches 5,000 shekels ($1556),” said Orna Maya, a cleaner from the central city of Yavneh who has worked for Israel Aerospace Industries through a contractor for the past four years.

Orna Maya at a demonstration of the cleaning workers in Tel Aviv. Her shirt reads: “Orna, cleaning workers demand: don't disrespect us, raise the wage!“ (Photo: Nizzan Zvi Cohen)

“I work every day from 6:00 a.m. to 4:00 p.m., from dawn until dusk,” she continued. "I feel the price increases when I buy groceries. I conserve electricity and water so my paycheck can last the month. There’s no luxury. Everything I have I give to my kids. I don't have anything left to buy gifts for my grandchildren’s birthdays.”

Naomi Yahbas, who has worked as a cleaner for the Aviram Group for 24 years, earns Israel’s minimum wage of 29.12 shekels ($9.06) hourly.

“I have a disabled husband at home who can’t work and receives a [monthly] allowance of 1,500 shekels ($467). And with that lousy wage I have to make a living,” Yahbas said. “The government ministers should help out. Let Minister Barbivai get up and take care of the cleaners. She never cleaned toilets, panels, and stairs for such a measly salary. It’s older women who are working with great difficulty.”

Naomi Yahbas, on right, at the protest. The sign reads: “Cleaning workers are crumbling under price increases!” (Photo: Nizzan Zvi Cohen)

“If necessary, we will shut down the economy,” Yahbas went on. “Without cleaners, the economy can’t function for one day. We are the foundation that sustains the economy.”

The Israel Organization of Cleaning Companies’ chair, Avi Mizrahi, also expressed frustration at the inefficacy of the Ministry of Economy.

“We are here to fight for our future, to tell the government that we are a significant part of this country that deserves to get paid with dignity,” he said. “Let the leaders explain to us how you can live with 5,300 shekels ($1,649). Where’s the appreciation for the people who clean the hospitals, the classrooms, the bathrooms? Where is the recognition that the operating rooms, the nursing homes, the entire public sector functions because of the work of the people here?״

״We will continue to fight for you until the Minister of Economy wakes up and signs the agreement that will raise wages by six shekels. I don't think that’s enough either, but that’s what the state is currently stuck on,” Mizrahi added.

The call to raise wages was also echoed by Yossi Barbi, who chairs the Histadrut’s union of cleaners and security workers.

“It is time to raise wages. The cost of living is constantly rising and cleaners’ wages are crumbling. The cleaning staff will not be ignored. We will take all legal measures at our disposal to raise their wages,” Barbie said.

Barbivai chose not to respond to the criticisms that were expressed at the protest.

Economy Minister Orna Barbivai. (Photo: Yossi Zeliger / Flash90)

The Labor Arm of the Ministry of Economy, where the Labor Relations Commissioner has apparently recommended that the Minister sign the extension order, said in a statement: “Raising wages for employees and improving their conditions is an important and appropriate step and we support this. We emphasize that if Israel Organization of Cleaning Companies wants, it can apply the agreement immediately, but there are stipulations on the existence of an extension order. Therefore, the question should be referred to the Israel Organization of Cleaning Companies. We are in contact with the parties and hope that they will reach a solution as soon as possible for the benefit of the workers in the economy.”

The statement went on to add: “The Chief Commissioner of Labor Relations in the Economy demanded that the general director of the Israel Organization of Cleaning Companies negotiate with the Ministry of Finance, which is in charge of the budget, also representing the largest cleaning service in the economy, with the aim of reaching balanced agreements that will lead to increased productivity, increased labor participation rates, and economic growth.”

This article was translated from Hebrew by Leah Schwartz.