Small gods with big sticks at the unemployment office

By Yudit Ilany

How is it that a civil servant’s whim, impression or impulse can shatter an entire family’s lives? Some people, pushed and pushed into the corner, can’t take it anymore

When the Israeli Employment Service (the unemployment office) registers somebody as “uncooperative,” all social security payments are automatically suspended for two months. This procedure is commonly known as “refusal.” Refusal snowballs single-parent families straight into an avalanche of poverty and distress, from which there is no salvation but death.

September the 22nd was a tough day, during which many women from Jaffa encountered refusals.

The 28th of each month is something of a minor festivity for many Jaffa families. If you have no real need to, it’s better not to visit your local post office on the 28th; it’s the day the National Insurance Institute (social security) transfers money into citizens’ postal accounts. The postal bank has no credit cards or ATMs, so people stand in line waiting quietly for their turn:

In a few minutes I’ll finally have some money in my pocket.

Today I’ll do the ‘Big Shopping’.

A day for paying off debts.

A day to pay utility bills.

A day for finally buying schoolbooks for the kids.

A day to paying the rent.

A day on which I can finally buy something nice for the kids — a treat, or perhaps a chicken for dinner.

It’s also a day of dilemmas:

Should I repair the washing machine or perhaps buy the shoes my son has been dreaming about for months, or maybe visit the dentist?

That toothache has been driving me nuts for several days now. Or perhaps I should postpone going to the dentist for yet another month. With a little Tylenol I can handle that annoying pain for a few more days after all.

And it is a day of buying diapers, baby formula and medicine.

A day also to pay back the small loan I took from my neighbor, or God forbid, from the black market goons who have been pestering me for some days now.

Money runs out quickly and once more I start running a debt at the local grocer and at Rafi’s, the small produce guy with the big heart. I should remember to set some money aside for the family’s monthly bus passes.

Last month, because of the Jewish and the Muslim holidays, social security payments were transferred earlier, on the 22nd; a day of happiness and festivity, but not for all.

A, a mother of four young children, among them a sweet little two-year-old boy, was referred by the government Employment Service to an office cleaning contractor who “was happy to employ her”, or so he said. “He’s looking for many workers for an office cleaning job in the early morning hours — before office hours. Work starts at 6 a.m.” And if there are enough workers from Jaffa, the contractor promised he would organize transportation. There is only one small problem, the youngest son’s kindergarten starts at 7 a.m. and the older children, who are in first and second grades, are too young to take responsibility for their little brother. A has to accompany them each morning to school, which starts at 8 a.m. Nor can the older children deal with the youngest son’s diapers by themselves.

“Well, if that is the case I cannot give you a job”, the contractor told A.

She went back to the Employment Service where she was registered as “uncooperative”. Why? Because the civil servant got that impression. As a result, A didn’t receive her social security payment on the 22nd, nor will she receive it this month. A single-parent family with four small children has to survive two months without any income at all. Two months without a penny for food, medicine, diapers, public transport, rent. A. has since modified her usual walking route through the neighborhood in order not to pass by the grocery and the produce store: she has no means to pay her monthly bills. And she’s running a new debt at competing businesses, a little further from home.

The water is shut off, the electricity is still running. This is how you get the laundry machine to work with no running water, Jaffa, September 2014. (Photo by Yudit Ilany)

The water is shut off, the electricity is still running. This is how you get the laundry machine to work with no running water, Jaffa, September 2014. (Photo by Yudit Ilany)

M., is in her fifties and not healthy. Her son, a drug addict, was recently released from prison. He receives social security payments during his first month outside  but doesn’t give a penny to his mum; all of the money goes to his dealer. M was also referred to a cleaning contractor who immediately noticed her painful gait (serious back and knee problems). M has difficulty lifting anything heavy and the contractor turned her down. He prefers his employees to be younger, faster and stronger.

When M’s turn at the postal bank came on September 22, she was also told, “there is no money in your account, they didn’t transfer anything. Better go and check it out”.

M has also been registered as “uncooperative” and her social security payments cancelled for two whole months. Dental treatment can wait but the landlord is not willing to wait for the rent. Paying off monthly payment to the debtors court? Not this month. Topping up her pre-paid phone account? Not now. The holidays? Not a chance. Perhaps she’ll receive a food parcel from a charity. And at the end of the day the greengrocer sells mediocre fruit for a low price and occasionally even hands out leftover third-rate vegetables for free. Perhaps today is her lucky day!

Two months of not paying the rent creates a debt to her landlord. M won’t be able to pay when her social security is renewed in two months either. But right now she doesn’t even have money to take the bus to the Employment Service. Even if she finds a job, she will not have the money to travel to it, so renewal is not at all certain.

M. has to renew her rent subsidy and to do so she must submit her income data for the last six months. During four of the past six months she received social security payments, but for two months there is no income at all. The Housing Ministry calls this, “exploiting a lack of earning potential,” which is a fancy way of saying: “you could have gotten money, but you didn’t, so apparently you have enough income from unknown sources,” and, along the same cruel logic, “we will therefore no longer pay your rent subsidy.”

Even among those living in dire poverty, a penny leads to another penny. The municipality also views it in a similar manner: if you do not receive social security you are not entitled to a discount on your municipal taxes. Yes, this is all very rational according to a certain type of logic, the logic of the hegemony.

And M? She doesn’t really understand it. She cries. Quietly. She feels ashamed.

N. is in a similar situation. She has also been refused. “Hell, they’ll seize my bank account again,” she says, laughing. “At least they can’t seize my social security payment.”

But then she remembers, she has no social security payment.

“Oh well, they can seize my debts. It’s a good thing I have a solar water heater. At least it isn’t yet cold during the nights and my daughter received lots of clothes from her cousin.”

N is an optimist who tries to find something positive in each situation. Yet after a few moments she adds, “I have run out of tears.”

On September 22 I heard about 10 “refusals” (ucooperative statuses at the employment office) — an awful day. You can be registered as “uncooperative” when your Employment Service clerk gets the impression you are not serious enough in your effort to find a job. There is no due process. You can appeal to the officer in charge, a higher-level civil servant, but I have yet to hear about a single successful appeal. It is also possible to take your case to the labor court, but an appeal can take many months — often more than a year.

Employment Service employees have enormous power: there is no due process, the civil servants are all powerful and do not have to prove a thing. It’s sufficient for them to “have the impression you are not sufficiently cooperative.” The civil servants serve both as judges and police officer at the same time. They truly are small gods with big sticks. Gods full of mercy? Not at the employment bureau!

Should I tell you about D., a clean drug addict (four years already!) and mother of a lovely three-year-old girl? D went back into prostitution in order to buy food and pay the rent.

Or maybe I should tell you about N., a divorced mother with six children, years on the waiting list to receive public housing. N simply broke down a few months ago and jumped to her death. She couldn’t take it any longer.

So, what are the implications of a civil servant’s “impression that I am not sufficiently cooperative,” of the automatic complete withdrawal of two months of social security payments? The true implication is a deep dark hole, a debt so large that a family living in poverty will not be able to recuperate from — a life-long sentence of more and more debt.

Do the employment bureau’s civil servants understand what they cause? Many of the discounts families living in poverty receive are automatically cancelled when they stop receiving social security payments. Thus, when they have no money at all, life becomes even more expensive.

Living on social security is merely surviving. Cancelling all income is disastrous.

So I have a question: why and how have the Employment Service civil servants been given such enormous power? When I go to court there are procedures, carefully worded written messages; I must prove beyond all shadow of a doubt; there is due process; I can prepare my defense with the assistance of an attorney. In a court of justice I can defend myself, and the judge may take my social and personal problems into account when sentencing.

But at the employment office? None of all that. Nothing, gurnicht, nada, fich! Go solve your own problems, pick your brain, go figure it out! And sometimes, you really cannot take it any more, and it all ends there, on the bloody tarmac below the window of the fifth-floor flat you and the kids would have been evicted from anyway.

Yudit Ilany is a photographer and activist living in Jaffa.

This article was first published in Hebrew on Haokets.

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  1. […] When I get out of the car I will lose that rage, that fervent anger toward my country — its social services and its social workers whose sense of compassion has become so eroded that they are able to look these young girls in the eyes and tell them “to wait until after the holidays.” I’ll lose the anger toward a state that can leave a family of a stepfather and five girls — whose mother died in thewrong war — to fend for themselves in that suffocating swamp of despair, barely holding on by the tips of their fingers. Of all the involved parties, from the housing company to the municipal welfare department, no one was able to find some time to clean the blood stains from building’s entrance. Recently, another article on this website mentioned another case of suicide because of poverty, that of a moth…. […]

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