End to Foreign Ministry strike may be near

Two sides reach agreement to resume work, Finance Ministry says; shut down could end Thursday

Foreign Ministry workers protest as they strike outside the Foreign Ministry building in Jerusalem, March 24, 2014. (photo credit: Yonatan Sindel/Flash90)
Foreign Ministry workers protest as they strike outside the Foreign Ministry building in Jerusalem, March 24, 2014. (photo credit: Yonatan Sindel/Flash90)

A solution to an ongoing Foreign Ministry strike that has shuttered Israeli embassies across the world may be at hand after the two sides came to an agreement late Wednesday night, the Finance Ministry said.

The ministry said the director of the treasury’s wages department, Kobi Amsalem, met with Histadrut Trade Unions Division chairman Avi Nissenkorn late Wednesday to discuss the diplomats’ demands for higher wages. Former National Labor Court president Stephen Adler, who is abitrating the dispute, presided over the meeting.

During the meeting, the Finance Ministry said, the two sides reached an agreement to end the strike, and were due to meet Thursday to draft a memorandum of understanding.

A spokesperson for the striking workers told The Times of Israel there were some agreements on core issues and the sides would meet again Thursday.

“If they come to an agreement they will end the strike today,” Shani Goldstein said.

As of Thursday morning, though, Foreign Ministry workers remained steadfast in their struggle for higher wages and better conditions, constantly tweeting about the importance of diplomacy to Israel’s security.

On Sunday, the Workers Union called an open-ended general strike, shutting down the Foreign Ministry building in Jerusalem and 103 embassies and consulate worldwide for the first time in Israel’s history. The drastic move came after a first round of labor sanctions last year and seven months of subsequent negotiations with the Finance Ministry yielded no results.

The strike has brought diplomatic work to a standstill, leaving Israelis who lose their passports overseas stranded and canceling trips by Israeli officials abroad.

On Monday, the Finance Ministry threatened to take disciplinary action against diplomats or employees involved in not letting employees enter missions.

Ministry workers say they do not make enough money to support themselves in Israel or on international assignments, especially in more expensive Western countries.

Several workers have published their payslips in the national media to prove they make below the average Israeli salary of about NIS 8,000 ($2,300) a month, including diplomats with over a decade of experience.

“Those in higher ranks … don’t see what political science students see: security doesn’t just mean having a strong army,” the Foreign Ministry tweeted Thursday.

On Tuesday, Foreign Minister Avigdor Liberman slammed the Foreign Ministry’s Workers Union for the strike, accusing the diplomats of “violence” and “brutality” in their struggle for better pay and working conditions.

“It’s the workers’ right to strike and to demand an improvement of their financial situation or their working condition. But I don’t accept going over to violence,” Liberman said at a press conference in the Knesset. “What happens today is that we hurt the poor sods who lost passports [abroad] and can’t return [to Israel]; we hurt babies and parents that went though processes of surrogacy and can’t reach Israel; we don’t return bodies of people who died abroad, and the consulates refuse to deal with them…; or the elderly patients whose caretakers traveled abroad and need to come back, and we don’t allow it.”

“This behavior damages our good name; it diminishes the public support for our struggle,” Liberman said. Israeli diplomats must not fight for their salaries at the expense of needy Israelis, he added.

Liberman acknowledged that the conditions of some diplomats need to be improved, but rejected some of the union’s claims as unrealistic, unjustified and even “absurd.” Israelis ambassadors earn between NIS 35,000 and NIS 50,000 a month, he said. Israel’s ambassador to Nepal, for instance, earns exactly $9,752, or NIS 34,000, according to Liberman. Israeli ambassadors to European capitals have even higher salaries, he said.

He admitted, however, that pay is significantly lower for lower-level diplomats serving abroad. “There is room for improvement,” he said, but insisted that the often-made claims that diplomats leave the Foreign Service because they can’t make ends meet were false.

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