As the global recession worsens, unemployment has risen sharply in Israel due the declining export market for Israeli goods and services. Following the government’s announcement that it will extend the Employment Lights (formerly known as the Wisconsin Plan) welfare-to-work program to the entire country in order to combat unemployment, four members of the NIF family wrote a letter of protest, explaining the continuing issues with the program, to new Minister of Finance Yuval Steinitz.
As with many social justice initiatives, the battle for a reasonable welfare-to-work program is ongoing. Two years ago, the NIF family ensured that the original, punitive Wisconsin plan was improved to be fairer to particularly disadvantaged groups, but the effort to ensure a just and equitable program continues. Especially with a new right-wing government in place, the NIF family’s work in promoting a solution that is fair to the most disadvantaged communities, and not the private companies who receive the contracts, will be critical.
Community Advocacy – Genesis Israel, Association for Civil Rights in Israel (ACRI), New Discourse (The Democratic Mizrahi Rainbow) and Rabbis for Human Rights wrote in their letter: “The Wisconsin Plan has been severely criticized because of the harm it does to job seekers and their right to live in dignity. Improvements have been made in the program but a large part of them have yet to be implemented in the field.”
Participants in the welfare-to-work program are given advice about their rights from social change activists.
The Wisconsin Plan, originally known as Mehalev (From the Heart), was introduced in Israel in 2005 in four pilot cities – Jerusalem, Nazareth, Hadera and Ashkelon – where there were 20,000 unemployed. Wisconsin Watch, set up by NIF grantees Mehuyavut: Commitment to Peace and a Just Society and Community Advocacy together with SHATIL, uncovered systematic abuse of program participants by the private companies who won the contracts to operate the program. Wisconsin Watch was in the forefront of the successful public campaign to scrap Mehalev.
In 2007, Mehalev was replaced by Employment Lights in the four pilot cities. The new program was designed to have special tracks for new immigrants, academics, single mothers and those with disabilities. In addition, participants over 45 years old, representing a third of those taking part in the welfare-to-work program, are given exemptions and the Government Employment Bureau is supposed to find other solutions for them. The NIF organizations monitoring the program’s implementation are also advocating for special tracks for Arab women.
Still of major concern with the new program are the private companies running the project, who are often more concerned with their own bottom line than generating employment solutions. The social change organizations propose meeting the Minister of Finance to fully discuss implementing the program’s special tracks and introducing more changes so that it can more effectively and fairly tackle unemployment.
Unemployment Fact File (According to Israel’s Central Bureau of Statistics):
September 2008 – unemployment rate 5.9% with 179,000 jobless
March 2009 – unemployment rate 6.9% with 205,500 jobless
December 2009 (estimate) – unemployment rate 8% with 238,000 jobless