May 31, 2001

University professors take up cause of menial workers on campus

By ALLYN FUSHER-ILAN, The Jerusalem Post

Spurred by the success of a recent Harvard University sit-in, lecturers and students at three local universities are organizing a campaign to ensure that menial workers on their campuses are paid a so-called "living wage."

Neve Gordon, a political science lecturer at Beersheba's Ben-Gurion University and a campaign organizer, said there are several hundred custodial employees doing gardening, working in the dining room, or cleaning floors who earn barely a minimum wage because the university, which has outsourced the hiring of cleaners to a personnel agency, may have too little say about how they are treated.

Gordon and other faculty and students from Ben-Gurion, Tel Aviv University, and the Weizmann Institute in Rehovot plan to hold a first meeting tonight on the issue.

While labor activism may sound like an unusual endeavor for professors to dirty their hands with, Gordon feels it's quite a natural cause for the academic community to champion.

If universities are supposed to represent the cause of social justice, and to seek to improve their country, "then we have to start at home and home is the university," Gordon said. "We want to set up a coalition" to introduce the concept of a living wage to Israel, and have Ben- Gurion University as a key developer of the Negev be a "forerunner of the campaign," he said. For now the campaign is focusing on letter-writing and attempting to negotiate with university administrators, Gordon said.

Gordon accused the agencies hiring menial labor at Ben-Gurion of cheating many custodial employees out of proper wages and adequate social benefits. The situation has deteriorated in the last several months as agencies have made cutbacks, probably due to an overall economic slowdown, he said.

Their campaign would literally be starting from square one, since Israel hasn't yet introduced its own version of the "living wage," a formula devised by 51 US cities, beginning with Baltimore in 1994, said Gordon. A "living wage" is more than a minimum salary, which in Israel is NIS 3,256. It is how much one needs to live above the poverty line. "The living wage has not been introduced to Israel, while in the past 10 years it has gained a lot of ground in the US," Gordon said.

In the Harvard controversy, students ended a three- week sit-in at an administration building on May 8 when management agreed to set up a panel to see to paying menial laborers there a "living-wage." In Cambridge, Mass., that amount was calculated at $ 10.25 an hour.

Locally, the Histadrut Labor Federation has had a hard enough time lobbying to increase the minimum wage to roughly $ 1,000, which would be about a monthly NIS 4,000, or about 70% of the average wage. The bill has passed a preliminary reading, but business leaders have campaigned strongly against it.

Tel Aviv University Professor Ariel Rubinstein of the economics department preceded Harvard in spearheading the cause of assuring decent pay for menial workers on campus. He oversaw the launching of talks with administrators over the issue in 1998, leading the university to appoint an ombudsman to oversee the matter.

Initially, "people were shocked about what was happening right under their noses," said Rubinstein. Today, "the picture isn't rosy, but I don't want to be unfair or understate that the university has taken significant steps to begin handling the matter. However, to succeed, this effort must become more massive." "We are trying to create links so this campaign will be conductive on a national level. We began three years ago. But now we are encouraged by what happened at Harvard, over the issue of a 'living wage.' We hope that following the protests at Harvard, more people will get involved."

Despite the progress, Rubinstein feels TAU personnel aren't reviewing enough pay slips to make sure that salaries are fair or that minors aren't being hired. Professor Nir Ahituv, TAU vice president and director- general, said the university routinely checks about 40 percent of pay slips. He noted a case where they stepped in to prevent an employee from being fired several months ago.

As for paying a "living wage," Ahituv isn't sure the budget can be stretched that far, given the latest budget cut to universities of some NIS 200 million decided by the cabinet this month, as part of measures to provide more money for defense.

At Ben-Gurion, David Bareket, a senior deputy director-general in charge of finance, said the university tries to monitor the agencies it pays to hire custodial workers. He's not sure they can do much more.

"It's not a matter of money," Bareket said. "The goal of the university is to teach and graduate students. Our expertise is in academics, not gardening and such matters. We want to focus on our main goals. It wouldn't be proper for us to say, open a faculty in gardening."