Director of the Department Social and Economic Rights | The Association for Civil Rights in Israel (ACRI)
How to achieve “social justice”?
The social protests that have recently swept Israel reached a new peak on 3 September 2011, with the biggest demonstration in Israel’s history. Protesters came from all over the country and from different backgrounds and ethnic origins, chanting simply, “the people demand social justice”.
This demand comes following three decades of socio-economic governmental policies of budget cuts and aggressive privatization, which have made Israel an impossible place to live in dignity. The housing situation is a primary example and for many, the main incentive to protest. The state has been selling land to entrepreneurs for years without proper land use planning. The Israel Land Administration has failed to specify in its construction tenders a requirement to build affordable or public housing, notwithstanding a legal obligation to do so. Constructors, on their part, have opted for building luxurious apartments.
Furthermore, since 2002, cuts in the budget of the Housing Ministry resulted in the loss of some 79% of mortgage aid funds. Public housing apartments were sold to private owners and no new apartments were built in their place. As a result, housing has become unaffordable not just for “the poor”. The percentage of people who live in an apartment they own continues to drop (from 73% in 1995 to 66% in 2008). Unsurprisingly, the increasing concentration of wealthy populations and lack of mixed neighbourhoods have boosted social polarization.
The employment market is another hotbed of discontent, with the Israeli society troubled not so much by unemployment, but by poor conditions and minimal employee protection. The state has failed to introduce any wage-increase plan or to effectively enforce existing labour laws (including the Minimum Wages Act). In 2008, 60% of workers earned less than 75% of the average wage and 40% less than a half. The sad conclusion is that in Israel labour no longer necessarily saves one from poverty. Regarding labour rights enforcement, to comply with the OECD standard that requires one inspector per ten thousand employees, Israel would need approximately 280 inspectors, while at the moment it has merely 80. This shortage coupled with inefficient enforcement operations, targeting entirely the “blue collar”, neglecting others whose labourers’ rights are grossly violated.
These problems resulted from the perpetuating implementation of an ultra-capitalist policy by several consecutive governments. The basic rights to education, health, housing, employment and social welfare have been degraded to consumer goods subject to market conditions. Leaving these rights to the grace of the invisible hand is unjust and obviously does not work.
The great challenge now is to translate popular demands for ‘social justice’ to concrete, practical steps; how to undo the negative results of a badly conceived and poorly executed policy of privatization. The government must assume responsibility. True, it installed a new committee to examine and propose solutions to Israel’s socio-economic problems, but at this stage many suspect this to be little more than a manoeuvre to suspend the protest. It is time for the government to show real commitment to change, for instance by reconsidering various bills of social rights that it had rejected, froze or stalled over the years. Furthermore, to guarantee future governments’ commitment to “social justice”, it may be necessary to elevate social and economic rights to a constitutional level. Our organization is presently working on a proposal for such a new Basic Law, as I will further explain in future posts.