By Hanna Zohar

The report on the decline of the unemployed in April is very encouraging but we must not forget the concurrent rise in the rate of poor workers. The 2014 National Insurance Institute Report reveals a slight decrease in the poverty level in Israel during 2013, resulting from the significant growth in the number of employed, a slight rise in wages, and improved enforcement of the minimum wage law. While at the same time, poverty grew from 5.5% in 2013 to 5.7% in 2014 among the Haredi and Arab communities, and in double wage earning families.

The report points out that the reduction in child allowances and the unchanged rate of income support results in a shrunken welfare system, which raises the risk of abusive employment due to the need to work “at all costs.” The experience of Kav LaOved, working to protect the rights of vulnerable workers in Israel, confirms these findings. The rise in the minimum wage and the increase in the number of employed are welcome, however it is important to be aware of the resulting effects, including the growing depth and breadth of the phenomenon of abusive employment.

We are witnessing a gradually progressing phenomenon, adversely affecting low income workers, in which employees are suspended or have their work days cut back by employers. This is particularly harmful to hourly workers who are employed by weekly or daily shifts. Without warning, workers discover that they have been scheduled for fewer shifts or no shifts at all. Sometimes the employer does this as a type of punishment when an employee does not agree to change shifts, even if it is due to circumstances known in advance by the employer, such as studies or family events. An employer also cuts shifts when workers requested the payment of their salary according to the schedule as set by law.

In addition, workers report another kind of suspension which they refer to as “drying out,” in which an employer gradually gives a worker less shifts then agreed upon without notifying the worker of the change or providing a letter of dismissal as required by law. Thus, Sarit, who was employed as a customer service representative was given fewer and fewer shifts over a period of months because she refused to switch shifts with another employee. Seeing her bills piling up, she decided she had no choice but to resign. And Moses, who was employed as a security guard, was told by his employer, “go home, we will call you when we need you.” Months passed but the call never came. He lost months of vital income needed for daily life.

It is hardly necessary to point out the distress and damage these workers suffered. Monthly bills, rent, mortgage and other payments do not stop when a worker is unexpectedly laid off or cut back. Fluctuations in wages prevent planning for household expenses and impair the worker’s ability to deal with unexpected bills causing a sense of uneasiness and helplessness.

A cutback in a worker’s hours is not an acceptable practice in the worker-employer relationship unless anchored by law, collective agreement, or personal agreement. While the employer generally has control over hiring and laying-off workers, he is not allowed to unilaterally establish interim employment conditions to avoid paying the worker’s wage for a specific or unlimited period of time. Furthermore, workers are reluctant to turn to the courts to sue employers for the loss of income resulting from this kind of practice.

Vulnerable low income workers are those hurt by cut backs and layoffs at any time the employer wishes. Despite their readiness to work, these workers do not receive compensation for the loss of income from their employer or the government. If the government is incapable of preventing this phenomenon, it must compensate the workers for the loss of income according to the number of hours or days lost.

The author is the founder of Kav LaOved.

Translated by Sharon Kerpel