Israel, unions to start minimum wage talks as national strike looms

Strike could shut airport, trains, seaports

JERUSALEM (Reuters) — Israel's Finance Minister will start negotiations with the country's main labour union on Monday in a bid to avert a national strike over demands to sharply raise the minimum wage, the ministry said.

Israel's minimum wage stands at 4,300 shekels ($1,116) a month and the Histadrut — the umbrella organisation for hundreds of thousands of public service workers — is seeking a hike to 5,300.

Finance Minister Yair Lapid invited Histadrut Chairman Avi Nissenkorn and Zvika Oren, head of Israel's Manufacturers' Association for talks on Monday aimed at preventing a strike the Histadrut has set for Dec. 4 and would likely shut the airport, trains, seaports and government services.

National strikes cost Israel's economy an estimated 2 billion shekels a day.

Lapid, in a meeting with Nissenkorn on Friday, said he supports a rise in the minimum wage and helping those at the bottom of the wage scale.

He has said in the past that he would support a rise to 4,500 shekels a month. Economy Minister Naftali Bennett also has expressed support for a higher minimum wage.

According to the Organisation for Economic Co-Operation and Development (OECD), Israel's real minimum wage was in the middle of the pack - 12th out of 25 countries in 2013. In dollar terms, it was $14,291 a year in 2013, just behind the United States' $15,080.

This placed Israel well behind Australia — with the highest annual minimum wage at $30,389 — Luxembourg, the Netherlands, Belgium, Ireland, New Zealand, France, Canada, the UK and Japan.

But it was well above Mexico — the lowest at $1,285 — Chile, the Czech Republic, Estonia, Hungary, the Slovak Republic, Poland, Turkey, Portugal, Greece, Spain, Korea and Slovenia.

Nissenkorn called Israel's minimum wage a "starvation wage" and said it was the country's main problem.

"I do not see government ministers or Knesset (parliament) members capable of surviving a month on 4,300 shekels," he said, adding that he would not accept a monthly rise of 200 shekels.

Oren said he favoured a hike in the minimum wage as part of a comprehensive agreement that reduces the employers' tax and allows for more flexible working hours.

He said he opposed a strike "because it does not allow for real negotiations".

The minimum wage was last raised by 200 shekels a month in October 2012.

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