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Foreign Ministry workers open labor dispute, putting official visits at risk

Ministry now has two weeks to negotiate before union takes action, says it is committed to improving conditions for diplomats, employees

Lazar Berman is The Times of Israel's diplomatic reporter

Foreign Minister Yair Lapid meets with US Ambassador to the UN Linda Thomas-Greenfield on November 15, 2021. (Asi Efrati/ GPO)
Foreign Minister Yair Lapid meets with US Ambassador to the UN Linda Thomas-Greenfield on November 15, 2021. (Asi Efrati/ GPO)

The Histadrut union officially began a labor dispute on Monday against the Foreign Ministry’s management in search of better compensation and benefits for the ministry’s diplomats and employees.

In a letter to Israel’s diplomatic missions around the world, the Foreign Ministry workers’ union wrote that the move “could cause disruptions in the work of the ministry, including everything having to do with visits of official guests to Israel.”

The union also asked diplomats to be prepared to take whatever steps were necessary in the coming months.

“The employment conditions for Foreign Ministry employees in Israel and around the world have been getting systematically and steadily worse for years,” said the union in a statement.

“The employees’ representatives have been asking for these issues to be dealt with for half a year. Unfortunately, our efforts have not succeeded, and therefore Foreign Ministry employees find themselves once again being forced to fight for their rights.”

They called on Foreign Minister Yair Lapid, currently on a two-day visit to the UK and France, to take up their cause.

“Foreign Ministry employees have a critical influence on many aspects of the country’s activities,” continued the statement. “We hope we will not need to take additional steps to disrupt these important activities.”

Foreign Ministry employees disrupt a meeting of the promotions committee as a committee member waits for them to leave, October 19, 2021 (Lazar Berman/Times of Israel)

By law, the Foreign Ministry now has two weeks to negotiate to find a solution before the union begins taking action.

A central demand is that the current promotion timetable be reconfigured by the Finance Ministry. The promotion schedules are a major point of contention, with only one or two positions opening up each time for dozens of candidates at each rank.

Delays in promotion severely affect salaries for their work, which they described as regularly taking place late at night and on weekends.

“The foreign minister and director general value the good and dedicated work of the Foreign Ministry’s employees,” responded the ministry in a statement, “and are committed to continue working to improve the employment conditions and salaries of the ministry’s employees, which they deserve.”

The representatives are currently focusing their efforts on the management of the Foreign Ministry, not the Finance Ministry, which negotiates salaries and benefits with other government offices.

Foriegn Ministry Director-General Alon Ushpiz attends a Defense and Foreign Affairs Committee, at the Knesset, in Jerusalem, June 9, 2021. (Olivier Fitoussi/Flash90)

“Our demands are to the Foreign Ministry, since that is our father, and we are operating through it,” said a union spokesperson to The Times of Israel. “Of course, our ‘father’ always says he very much loves his children.”

The union had announced in October that it would start the process of declaring a labor dispute. Ministry employees embarked on an aggressive campaign for better compensation and benefits, disrupting a meeting of the promotion committee and posting signs at the entrance to Lapid’s office.

Foreign Ministry workers union head Yosi Levi Sfari addresses employees during a protest, October 19 2021 (Lazar Berman/Times of Israel)

“We’ve gotten to a point where someone is supposed to be promoted, and management tells him, ‘We simply can’t promote you.’ It’s not that it will take another month or two; it’s another ten years, 12 years, or it’ll never happen,” Yosef Levi Sfari, head of the Foreign Ministry workers union, told The Times of Israel in October.

Some 229 employees are eligible and waiting for promotion, said Levi Sfari, some for more than a decade. The average age of those who reach the rank of ambassador is 63, and even at that top grade, the base salary is only around NIS 14,500 a month ($4,500).

Foreign Ministry workers announced in 2019 that they would be stepping up protests after the government passed a sweeping NIS 1.2 billion ($333 million) spending cut. The budget cuts further strained the Foreign Ministry’s already tight budget, leading to downgraded services at Israeli embassies.

Israel’s Foreign Minister Yair Lapid is met by his Bahraini counterpart, Abdullatif bin Rashid Alzayani, center right, for the first high-level visit in Manama, Bahrain, Thursday, Sept. 30, 2021 (Shlomi Amshalem/GPO via AP)

In May, a report by then-state comptroller Yosef Shapira found that some Israeli ambassadors and their staff were living in uninhabitable conditions while on posts abroad. Shapira’s report said that many of the 250 or so properties and staff residences under the Foreign Ministry’s charge were in a dilapidated state.

The report detailed complaints from Israel’s ambassador to Nigeria about rats and lice in the official residence, and noted that the envoy to Brazil slept on a mattress on the floor.

Diplomats went on strike over wage and budget disputes in 2014 and again in 2016, saying the treasury had dragged its feet on implementing a previous compensation agreement.

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