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Ivory tower sweatshops

Israeli colleges employ teachers as temp workers with low wages and subpar working conditions

Going back to work after the long celebration of the holiday of freedom is for many a form of liberation; for the five thousand and more external teachers at Israel’s public colleges it is a return to conditions barely short of slavery. Their struggle for emancipation from demeaning terms of employment as contract workers in Israeli institutions of higher education has not yet yielded a just outcome. Without recognition of their centrality to the system and decent compensation in line with their superior qualifications, the end of the academic year in over twenty state-subsidized colleges is at risk.

The rickety construct of employment in the academic world is best exemplified by the anomalous status of external teachers (or, as they are sometimes called, teaching fellows). Although a full 66 percent of students in Israel’s institutions of higher education study in colleges, exactly the same percentage of their instructors, 66 percent, are not considered to be permanent faculty and receive wages for, at best, only eight months per year. These external instructors do not enjoy any job security, they do not receive benefits (such as vacation and health leave), their salaries do not reflect their accumulated seniority and they do not boast anything beyond the most basic pension rights accorded by law. At any given moment, they can be relieved of their posts.

There are today 5,123 external teachers in the state-subsidized network of public colleges (in contrast to 2,636 permanent senior and junior faculty members), according to a comprehensive report published by the Knesset Center for Research and Information last year. These can be divided into three main categories: senior faculty in universities doing some supplemental teaching in colleges; experts called on to give a professional course or two annually (accountants, lawyers, senior managers, editors, writers, etc.); and junior and senior instructors for whom teaching in one — or several — colleges is their sole employment. The latter form the backbone of academic teaching programs throughout Israel’s colleges and universities.

But this is where the resemblance between universities and colleges stops. Whereas the system of contract labor in the universities was abolished in 2008 by the establishment of a new track for teaching fellows who receive twelve months pay and whose terms of employment have been substantially enhanced (including a 30 percent salary boost and the addition of professional recognition and concomitant benefits), their counterparts in the colleges have not been able to obtain similar rights. When, in 2012, the arrangement at the universities was further entrenched in a new work contract, in the colleges no real negotiations took place on the baffling grounds that contracts could only be signed with representative unions and in some cases such unions did not exist so no countrywide arrangement could be struck (but when unions were formed, no agreements could be signed without a collective contract which did not offer the benefits accorded to teaching fellows at the universities). For the past two years, thousands of critical teaching personnel have been in a state of limbo.

The cause of academic contract workers has been taken up by the Education Committee of the Knesset. It has been debated at length in the plenum. And it has been the subject of successive efforts to negotiate new terms with the Ministry of Finance, the Council of Higher Education and its financial arm, the Planning and Budgeting Committee. Several months ago, its chairman, Professor Manuel Trajtenberg, disseminated guidelines for a new arrangement with external teachers. In return for twelve-month contracts that offer employment continuity, external teachers were asked to teach 16 hours a week (their colleagues at the universities do not teach more than 10 hours) and to agree to a 20 percent reduction in their hourly wages. In addition, these terms would only be applied to those who taught at least five hours a week (leaving many external teachers outside the arrangement). These proposals not only increased the already significant gaps between teaching faculty at universities and at colleges, they also sharpened the discrimination between regular and temporary instructors within the college system.

Under the circumstances, it is hardly surprising that external teachers in the country’s colleges are saying enough is enough. Labor disputes have been declared at the Academic College of Tel-Aviv-Yaffo, Shenkar College and Sapir College. They have been supported not only by their senior faculty associations and their respective student unions, but also by a growing number of academics at other colleges and universities. Nevertheless, despite several strike days and stepped-up negotiations, no end is in sight.

Struggles over wages and employment conditions tend to get bogged down in technicalities. But they are neither technical nor boring at all. In this case, the demand for receiving the same compensation for the same work is absolutely basic. In fact, it is thoroughly appalling that a system of pure exploitation has been sustained for so long in Israeli academe and, when partly rectified at the universities, is being even further intensified in the country’s colleges. If freedom to think, create and invent is so precious, then the (often meager) rights of those who make this happen must be safeguarded.

To date, the story of external instructors is a very sad lesson not only in the abuse of some of the best minds that Israel has produced, but also in the rampant inability to do the right thing (in the baseless hope that those affected will simply give up and move on). Right now, the colleges cannot negotiate in good faith with their external faculty because they do not have the backing of the relevant committees of the Council on Higher Education; this body, in turn, has not been willing to go out on a limb for the weakest group on the academic ladder; and the Ministry of Finance has yet to reexamine its priorities. Under these circumstances, the trajectory is one of escalation which can easily lead to chaos.

It can be otherwise. This path can easily be altered, since ultimately it is impossible to perpetuate utterly untenable work conditions forever. Better to resolve the dispute in a spirit of reconciliation than under the kind of pressure that will only induce a lasting bad taste.

In an advanced economy, every worker has the right to a modicum of employment security. This is the case for agricultural laborers, caregivers, and academic instructors. Those who want Israel’s higher education to flourish, its faculty to maintain its superior level of instruction and research (as well as its morale) and the country to retain the best of its brain power, need to come together to support the fundamental rights to continuous employment with decent wages and benefits of those who teach at its colleges. The alternative would be to directly contribute to sub-par instruction leading to the gradual demise of the backbone of Israel’s social and economic future.

About the Author
Naomi Chazan is professor (emerita) of political science at the Hebrew University of Jerusalem. A former Member of the Knesset and Deputy Speaker of the Knesset, she currently serves as a senior research fellow at the Truman Research Institute at the Hebrew University and the Van Leer Jerusalem Institute.