Strike message on the Israeli Embassy website
The wages of diplomacy are not enough
If you email staff at the Israeli Embassy in London at the moment, you’re likely to get a terse, four-word out-of-office reply saying simply “we are on strike”. After seven months of mediation, diplomats and civil servants’ wages have fallen even further behind the cost of living. Diplomats’ patience has run out, so the unions representing the thousand or so employees of the Ministry of Foreign Affairs (MFA) have, after a year of dispute, called for strike action.
Israel’s Ambassador to the Court of St James, Daniel Taub, is also taking action: a reminder that, as is the case in the British diplomatic service, trade union membership goes right to the top. Like the Foreign and Commonwealth Office, the workforce in the Israeli MFA is organised in several unions, all part of the Israeli TUC, the Histadrut. They have received messages of support from trade unions all over the world, not out of long-distance solidarity but because the Israeli diplomats are in regular contact with trade unionists like the TUC or like the AFL-CIO in Washington DC, whose President Rich Trumka wrote:
“The AFL-CIO hopes that this conflict is quickly resolved in a way that protects the rights of your members to decent work and allows them to continue to serve their country.”
At the heart of the dispute is the Ministry of Finance’s decision to reduce the MFA budget, which has led MFA management to squeeze workers’ terms and conditions. In particular, the Foreign Service Workers Association has pointed to the absence of a permanent method of salary adjustment which has led wages to fall behind inflation in the same way as many public sector workers in Britain have experienced. But the diplomats are also facing discriminatory tax policies, ‘shadow’ salary levels that reduce their pension entitlements, and other small cuts that, taken together, have caused great anger.
Israeli diplomats are now no longer engaging with foreign representatives, handling official visits of any kind – like David Cameron’s recent trip to Israel – issuing visas or providing consular services. Even the diplomatic cables that are the lifeblood of traditional diplomacy have dried up. TUC General Secretary Frances O’Grady has added her support to the industrial action, in a message to the unions’ co-ordinator in Jerusalem, writing:
“Workers in all the countries that the MFA operates in will be familiar with these issues as we all struggle to ensure that working people’s standard of living improves, faced with a daily onslaught on our terms and conditions, our rights at work, and decency and respect.”
Like many statements the TUC has made on Israel over the last few years (mostly, admittedly, about the Middle East Peace Process and the plight of Palestinian workers), this message too was covered in the Israeli media. Hopefully the Ministry of Finance will take note!