Investing in the Community
At the end of 2002, businessman Yuval Golan, a majority shareholder in the I-Online company which supplies news about the investment market felt bored. "I wanted to do something more significant than pushing papers, without, of course, wanting to insult those who do push papers," he relates.
Since then, right on schedule, Golan reports once a week to YEDID’s Citizen Rights Center in Tel Aviv and helps exploited workers receive what they deserve from their employers. Golan does donate money from time to time to social organizations, but he believes that his contribution of time is more important. "This is a real obligation. It is very easy just to write a check and move on," he says.
Golan's work is mainly in helping new immigrants who are unaware of their rights or do not dare to defend them. Surprisingly, many of them are young people. "Exploitation is age-blind," Golan says. When asked why so many employers exploit their workers, Golan remembers what his father once told him, There are two ways to get rich, land speculation or by the work someone else does."
Golan estimates that manpower firms, for example, earn some NIS 600-800 [$170 -$230] per client each month by not paying social benefits. He helps YEDID clients estimate how much money they are owed, writes letters to employers (which are usually ignored) and helps clients appeal to the Labor Court. In addition, his clients turn into full partners in all proceedings, a process that is called "empowerment."
"They gain awareness of their rights," he explains, "and the next time they face exploitation they will quit after a month – not wait three years or feel guilty for asking for their due."
Actualization of Rights
This is the essence of YEDID, founded 10 years ago, which has become one of the country's largest grassroots organizations. "The organization's banner is to do everything possible to insure that people in difficult financial straits maximize their personal potential," says YEDID Deputy Director Ran Melamed.
The organization operates on three different tracks: Assistance to individuals in its 26 Citizen Rights Centers across the country, including legal aid; Community empowerment through groups specializing in employment, housing, and education; Social change through legislation, lobbying and informational campaigns.
Some 34,000 persons enjoyed YEDID services last year, an 8% increase from the previous year. 21% required help with financial difficulties; 23% because of housing problems (such as inability to meet mortgage payments, eviction notices from rental apartments or public housing); 25% because of National Insurance Institute (NII) issues. Other clients needed help with other problems, mostly with various governmental agencies.
One of the organization's key words is "actualization of rights." At YEDID’s Centers, staff noticed that many people could not come to the Centers simply because they lack bus fare. So it was decided to come to the people. At about the same time, Pfizer, the pharmaceutical giant, decided to contribute to the organization, and it was decided that the "right to health" would be among the rights adopted by YEDID. YEDID and Pfizer’s Mobile Health and Rights Center enables people to receive information about their rights to NII benefits and public housing, but also offers help in the heath area: a nurse checking passersby for blood pressure, for example, and referring them to medical help when needed.
The organization's activities grew with needs that arose in real-time. Citizen Rights Center directors in Ashkelon and Ofakim told of a gap between children born to Ethiopian immigrants and those born in Israel and their parents, who were experiencing serious absorption problems. The organization held parent-child workshops to prepare the children to enter first grade -- to help the parents better cope with the needs of their children, thus restoring some of the parental authority that had been lost.
The "Let’s Get to Work!" project evolved in Dimona, from the experience of a group of single mothers who were finding it difficult to find jobs. YEDID activists did not just sit and help them write resumes and tell them how to prepare for job interviews, although this, too, was done. Even more, they paired each woman with a mentor – usually a senior employee in a privately held company – to accompany them through the job search process. Last year, a similar project was held in Petach Tikvah, where ECI company workers have been serving as mentors for participants.
Projects were conceived and carried out according to local needs – ultra-Orthodox women in Kiryat Gat; former drug addicts in Ashkelon. In Rahat, where local women explained that they did not want to be salaried employees, a model of cottage industries was developed. A recent exhibition was held in the city where the women could display and sell their wares.
Entering a Vacuum
One of the benefits of the process of empowerment is that some 850 of the tens of thousands of clients that YEDID was able to help have themselves become volunteers and help others. Eti Guari, a single parent living in Nahariya, had been bereft of anything. With the help of YEDID, she received public housing and found a job in the Nahariya Municipality. She became a volunteer activist at the local YEDID Center that opened last year. Yoav Siyum, who approached the Haifa offices with housing and mortgage debt problems, became a leading volunteer and translator, actively working to advance the rights of local immigrants from Ethiopia.
Often needs requiring legislation arise from the facts in the field. That is how the law for the installation of solar hot water heaters in public housing apartments arose –to save tenants the high costs of electricity; the "social electricity" law granting discounts to the needy as well as the school hot lunch program. Of late, YEDID along with the Council for the Welfare of the child and a group of members of the Knesset, is working to reduce the cost of the youth delegations to Poland . YEDID is actively lobbying concerning the Repossession Authority Law reform to insure that alternate housing is found for mortgage defaulters who are evicted from their homes.
"Organizations like YEDID enter the vacuum that has been created since the Government has privatized so many areas and does not take charge of social services," says MK Colette Avital (Labor), who works with the organization on the subject of the trips to Poland the rights of Holocaust survivors, among other issues. "I am impressed by their ability to see the wider picture and not just one angle. They do serious, all-encompassing work. That is the way the Government ministries should operate, by thinking big," she adds.
The YEDID Legal Department has grown during the last few years: during the last year alone it was successful in preventing the eviction of some 900 mortgage defaulters and handled some 2,000 cases in the area of labor law. Precedents were set in some of theses cases, for example, in the area of the right to public housing. In many other cases, either the State or the banks withdrew their claims following pressure by the organization even before the cases reached the courts.
Last December, under the aegis of the Tel Aviv University Legal Clinic, YEDID asked to be named "friend of the court" in the case of those who had purchased Hefsiba apartments against the bank. The goal was to protect the interests of those who had purchased apartments who were left with no recourse after the company declared bankruptcy. The request was accepted. During the past few years, the organization has been working to halt the rising court costs as well as working in other ways to enable the weaker sectors recourse to the judicial system.
Attorney Yuval Elbashan, YEDID Deputy Director for Citizen Rights Centers, explains that until YEDID began its work, most Israeli organizations dealt with civil, not social issues. "They sat in air-conditioned offices in Jerusalem or in Tel Aviv and went out to the field only when they had to have people sign papers or appeals to the Supreme Court." He says that "we did not know exactly what was needed, but we understood that we would first have to gain the trust of people who had been disappointed; for whom the term `civil rights' belongs only to other people, sometimes to the enemy. Many times I was told, `You only care about Arabs.'"
Elbashan relates that most people did not believe that the organization would last. "One of the first activists in Ofakim said to me, `I know your type. After a year, you will leave us and we will remain here with all of our problems,'" Elbashan reminisces. Last year, at YEDID's tenth anniversary celebration, the same activist came up to Elbashan and admitted his mistake.