Israeli diplomats’ strike grounds Filipino caregivers

Carol RH Malasig
An air service agreement that can boost tourism in the Philippines and Israel and the issuance of visas for Filipino caregivers have been put on hold

CLOSED. Israeli foreign ministry employees wait outside the ministry in Jerusalem on March 24, 2014, as they intensified a long-running dispute over pay and conditions declaring a full-scale strike at home and at diplomatic missions around the world. Israel media saying the open-ended walkout was the first by diplomats in the country's 65-year history. AFP PHOTO / MENAHEM KAHANA

MANILA, Philippines – The Philippines is feeling the effects of the Israeli diplomats’ strike, which has caused the indefinite closure of their foreign ministry and 103 missions abroad.

As the strike entered its fourth day on Thursday, March 27, it had already affected the deployment of caregivers and derailed an air service agreement between the Philippines and Israel. (READ: Israel embassy in PH closes, stops aid)

Unlike Filipino tourists who do not need a visa to visit Israel, caregivers and other workers need a special kind of visa. 

New applications cannot be accepted, while those that were already submitted prior to the strike cannot be processed.

For an embassy that issues about 200 visas per month, 4 days is already a lot of processing hours lost. Similar problems are encountered abroad – the hiring of construction workers from China and workers for the agricultural sector coming from Thailand have also been affected by the strike.

Until such a time that Israeli diplomats decide to go back to work, the Philippines and Israel won’t be able to sign an air services agreement, which would allow 21 direct flights between the two countries every week. A boost in tourism for both countries will have to wait.

The unprecedented move came as a shock to the international community, but Israeli diplomats said they are left with no choice.

“It is sad, the strike. It is not something we wished to happen, but there is no other way,” Israeli Ambassador to Manila Menashe Bar-On said.

The labor dispute in the Israeli Foreign Ministry that started last year has dragged on and diplomats both abroad and at their home office are still demanding for better compensation even after a 7-month mediation period.

Spouse’s sacrifice

For Ambassador Bar-On, who is about to retire next year, his only regret is taking for granted the pitfalls of his working conditions early on in his career – something that the younger generation of Israeli diplomats are seeing right away.

“Joining the foreign service is a sacrifice, not just for the diplomat but for his family as well – particularly the spouse,” Bar-On said. “Wives and husbands of diplomats leave their careers in their country when their partner gets posted. They make a huge sacrifice to keep their family together, they give their lives to the foreign service as well. But when their husband or wife retires from the foreign service, what happens to them? The diplomats will get pension, but the spouses, after sacrificing their careers in the private sector to represent their country abroad, will not be compensated when they are of retirement age.”

Their foreign ministry is also losing the next generation of their foreign policy makers and implementors as younger diplomats are seeing such disadvantages of joining the foreign service right away. “After going through a stringent selection process to get into the foreign ministry, young diplomats end up leaving the foreign service only after one or two postings. We are losing the best of the best,” Bar-On said.

He added the reason behind the resignations is the unattractive compensation. Working in a different government office in Israel, these diplomats can earn better wages and their partners can also work, with the promise of receiving a pension upon their retirement.

While a diplomat’s partner is allowed to do part time work at their embassy during their posting, they are not entitled to a pension. Restrictions also prevent them from working for private companies while they are abroad, where they can earn more.

“I am retiring next year. Government officials my age who are in other departments will have two pensions to support them in old age – one for them and one for their wives. Me and my wife will have to live with just one pension,” Bar-On said, adding that living expenses in Israel are exceptionally high. 

Support for embassy staff

The labor dispute back home gives Bar-On more worries that are beyond the personal level. He said the diplomats are not only complaining about their own salaries. They have been pushing for bigger budgets for the posts abroad to be able to pay their staff better.

“I am lucky here in the Philippines, there are a lot of people who speak good English. They are easy to find and hiring them is not hard. However, for my colleagues abroad, in countries like China and Japan, it is harder for them,” Bar-On said.

Embassy staff who are good English speakers cost 3 times the normal rate in countries where English is not widely spoken, taking a huge chunk from an embassy’s budget.

“In our case in Manila, we have staff members that leave for better paying jobs. I am not the type of boss who would stop my employees from leaving once they find a job with better compensation. It happens and I am happy for them. But if I can make my staff stay longer instead of hiring a replacement after a short while, it would be better,” he said.

ON STRIKE. Ambassador Menashe Bar-On joins his fellow diplomats in a strike after their government failed to address their concerns. Rappler File Photo/Carol Ramoran

The Israeli embassy in Manila operates with several Israeli and Filipino staff members. When the strike took effect on Monday, March 24, all members of the staff were asked to stay at home for the duration of the strike – and that means indefinitely.

However, Bar-On and the two other diplomats in charge of the embassy, assured all staff members that there will be no deduction from their salaries. 

Feeling the effects

The Israel Hayom reports that Israel’s foreign minister, Avigdor Lieberman, has slammed the protests and is considering issuing a back-to-work order while negotiations between the foreign and finance ministries are ongoing.

Lieberman is quoted by Israel National News urging his men to go to work. “[The strike] has crossed some red lines and caused damage to the Foreign Ministry,” he said. “What is happening today is that [the strike] harms the poor, who lost passports and cannot go back; infants who need to return to the state of Israel; and we cannot return the bodies of people who died abroad. This harms our good name.”

Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu has also postponed his historic visit to Mexico, Panama, and Colombia next month due to the strike.

As much as he would like to go back to work, Bar-On said he cannot at the moment. Earlier protests by diplomats were recently sanctioned by Israel’s finance ministry with pay cuts. Bar-On expressed his frustration, saying diplomats, those from Israel in particular, are faced with problems to fix every day. 

Work tend to be much more difficult when serving a country like Israel that has tense relations with several of its neighbors, he said.

“You can see it in the United Nations where our enemies are trying to put Israel in a situation which is a country of apartheid which is not true. All the boycott against the country is something which we are trying to combat every day. It is something in our daily work and daily life.”

At the moment, no one is there to make a stand for Israel in several international fora and their government.

Their people are starting to feel the effects of the full strike. Bringing in foreign workers is not possible at the moment. Even some of the trade between countries have been halted because of papers that cannot be signed by the foreign ministry. Passports are not being issued to their nationals.

“Diplomacy is something which is built for years. Agreements between countries it’s not from day to the other. Making business and trade between countries generates a lot of jobs,” the ambassador said.

The Israeli Foreign Ministry, known in Hebrew as the Misrad Hahutz, was established in 1948 during the Jewish State’s formation. It is responsible for implementing Israel’s foreign policy and is responsible for maintaining and enriching diplomatic relations between Israel and 162 countries.

Bar-On said that their work is often taken for granted, but diplomats and their families actually make huge sacrifices for their country’s welfare. A constant threat to their lives abroad is laced with the heavy burden of being on the front lines of defending their country. “Defending the country is not only in the combat field. Our case, it is different than other countries. There are organizations and countries that try to demonize the reputation of Israel and we are there to set things straight.”

However, Bar-On remains hopeful. “We hope it would end soon. We hope the negotiations go well and that we can re-open the embassy soon.”

Bar-On is keeping his fingers crossed that they will be back to work within 1-2 days so they can go back to their own “combat field,” to get Israel back on track in the diplomatic arena and so that grounded workers can fly and be with their employers. –

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