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Israel faces general strike over government use of contract workers

JERUSALEM — An Israeli court convened on Sunday night in an 11th-hour effort to avert a general strike which would paralyse the country’s main international airport, hospitals, banks and government offices.

The National Labour Court went into session shortly before 10:00 pm (2000 GMT) after the powerful Histadrut trade union confederation failed to agree with the finance ministry in a dispute about the conditions of contract workers employed in the public sector.

Ahead of Monday’s threatened strike, “the finance minister has not changed his position,” Histadrut secretary general Ofer Eini told Channel One television after a meeting with the minister, Yuval Steinitz.

“The only thing that could stop the strike would be a decision by the court,” Eini added. “We are law-abiding and will respect any decision by the court.”

Media reports said the court could sit into the early hours of Monday.

Among possible options were that the court could rule the strike illegal and forbid it altogether, it could issue a temporary injunction giving the sides more time to seek a resolution, or it could decide not to intervene.

The Histadrut accuses the government of massively increasing its use of contract workers, who enjoy fewer rights and protections than civil service workers covered by collective bargaining agreements.

“This open-ended strike is intended to protest the second class status of hundreds of thousands of Israelis working in the public sector and some private companies,” Histadrut spokesman Eyal Malma told AFP.

“The use of these workers, who do not benefit from the same social rights and are underpaid, has become a veritable epidemic to which we must put a stop,” he added.

Malma said use of contract workers, who can be fired without notice and lack many holiday and other entitlements, had mushroomed to the extent that it was difficult to know how many people were now affected.

The government has urged the union to call off the strike, with Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu issuing a statement on Sunday saying “it is possible to find a solution.”

The union wants the government to offer a percentage of its current contract workers coverage under the civil service’s collective bargaining agreement to ensure them the same rights and protections as their colleagues.

But the government has warned it will not take any measures that could endanger Israel’s economy, while saying it is open to increasing the minimum wage paid to contract workers and increasing their rights.

Without a last-minute stay of execution, the strike is set to begin at 6:00 am (0400 GMT) on Monday, paralysing government ministries and local authorities, as well as public universities, hospitals and clinics.

Ben Gurion international airport would close at 8:00 am, while banks and the Tel Aviv stock exchange would not open on Monday, a Histadrut statement said.

Public utilities were to work on a weekend footing while buses and trains would not run, it added.

Copyright © 2011 AFP. All rights reserved.

Photo of Ben Gurion Airport by Berthold Werner (Own work) [GFDL (www.gnu.org/copyleft/fdl.html) or CC-BY-SA-3.0-2.5-2.0-1.0 (www.creativecommons.org/licenses/by-sa/3.0)], via Wikimedia Commons.

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