Cafeteria-Worker-Turned-Social-Justice-Activist Wins Precedent-Setting Case

30 August 2012 By Ruby Ong

30 August 2012

ShiraCohenShira Cohen doesn’t look like an activist. But the shy, petite graduate of Israel’s Haredi (ultra-Orthodox) school system won a precedent-setting case on behalf of Israel’s least protected workers – those employed by contractors.

Last March, a new contractor won the bid to operate the Knesset cafeteria and promptly refused to rehire Cohen – an employee with 12 years’ experience – stating that it wanted to bring in its own employee. But Cohen suspects the real reason was her involvement in workplace labor organizing. With the support and encouragement of the National Coalition for Direct Employment, of which SHATIL is a central player, Cohen took her case to court.

On August 15, Judge Eyal Avrahami decided in Cohen’s favor, saying that the contractor must return Cohen to her previous position and pay her legal fees.

This decision set an important precedent: The court ruled that a new contractor cannot dismiss workers en mass and that employees “who have put their heart and souls into their job have earned rights in the workplace.” These include the right not to be dismissed without sufficient cause, and “not because of legitimate workplace organizing activity that they led.”

In Israel, regular employees are guaranteed benefits such as retirement pensions, continuing education credits, vacation time, and more. Contract workers, however, are excluded from these protections. In addition to losing out on the long list of social benefits, they work for lower wages than their directly employed colleagues and are easily fired. The NIF-supported National Coalition for Direct Employment, along with the Knesset Direct Employment Lobby (which the Coalition helped to create), is fighting to ensure that workers in Israel are employed directly rather than through a contractor.

Shira Cohen loves her job and feels it’s a perfect fit for her. She revels in the fact that her position as head server at Knesset committee meetings and in the Knesset plenum allowed her to be in the know about the legislative process and to have good relations with Knesset members.

When the new contractor didn’t renew her contract, Cohen didn’t know she had recourse: “I was shocked, but I’m a simple person. I thought it was their right. But MKs heard about it and were mad and started talking. Shay, [Shay Cherpanov is SHATIL’s lobby expert], who I’d gotten to know in the Knesset, called and asked if I wanted to fight it. I didn’t think I could, but he and the Coalition and other Knesset workers encouraged me. SHATIL and the Coalition got me a pro bono lawyer from Koach LaOvdim (Democratic Workers’ Organization). When friends told me the working conditions in the cafeteria had gotten intolerable, I said to myself, ‘this is no longer just a personal matter.’ Even though I’m shy, when I feel an injustice has been committed, I find the courage to speak out. I had to do something.”

Thirty five Knesset members pledged to cover Cohen’s court costs if she lost her case.

A second hearing is scheduled for September 19th in order to discuss the conditions of Cohen’s re-hiring. The contractor is appealing the court’s ruling.

The National Coalition for Direct Employment represents more than 25 organizations, including the Association for Civil Rights in Israel, B’Maaglei Tzekek, the Israel Students’ Union, Koach LaOvdim, SHATIL, Kav LaOved and more.