Five Israeli security employees in German are suing El Al Israel Airlines Ltd. (TASE: ELAL) in the German courts demanding recognition of the labor relations between the parties. If their claims are accepted, it will have enormous financial consequences for the national airline. As of now, the company's security employees are officially state employees via the Ministry of Foreign Affairs, which also pays their salaries. The employees are therefore also suing the state of Israel. The ruling in Germany will also affect over 1,000 El Al security employees deployed throughout the world, most of whom are currently employed through a local Israeli worker contract.
In recent years, El Al, the State Attorney's Office, the Ministry of Foreign Affairs, and the Israeli Embassy in Germany have been engaged in a long and expensive legal proceeding against former employees who have filed claims in the German cities of Cottbus, Berlin, and Munich. El Al is fearful of a precedent that will require it to recognize them as its employees and employ them under German law, not Israeli law. In addition to intense activity of a local law firm, senior El Al executives have been traveling back and forth between Israel and Germany in recent years in order to deal with the legal proceedings, now exposed for the first time.
Itai, one of the claimants, told "Globes" that he had worked nine years in the airline's security apparatus, starting in 2005, first in Italy and then in Berlin. When the company terminated his employment contract in December 2014, he immediately filed suit through a local lawyer he hired, alleging that he had been laid off illegally, and that his rights should be the same as those of worker in a German company, who can be fired after three or five years only for extraordinary reasons. He demanded his job back and recognition of the labor relations between him and El Al. Another security worker fired at the same time, who worked for eight years in El Al security in Berlin, immediately joined his claim. A third worker joined them several months later.
These proceedings are taking place separately but simultaneously in Cottbus. The petitioners made a series of arguments in court to establish their status as El Al employees, even though their salaries were paid to them by the Israeli embassy in Berlin as the representative of the Ministry of Foreign Affairs, their official employer. All three were employed under contract by an employer called "Local Israeli Aviation Worker," which is standard for El Al's security employees throughout the world.
Among other things, Itai presented a report by his pension fund, which states that up until 2010, his employer was Local Israeli Aviation Worker, but from then until 2015, his employer was registered as El Al Airlines. He also presented the employer's address appearing on his Form 106 as the post office box operated by El Al at Ben Gurion Airport. He also planned to rely on a state ruling that El Al held a monopoly in security, and that the training courses he took were given by the company. He presented an official letter he received from the embassy for getting a visa in Germany, which explicitly states that that he was "employed by El Al as a security force, and that his average net income was between €1,200 and €1,600 a month." The visa he received in order to stay in Germany also states that he worked for El Al.
"The unforgivable injustice is to dump workers after seven years, or even 10 years, with no rights in the country they went to and where they are now living," Itai told "Globes." They nonchalantly fire them, with reduced compensation (because their basic salary is low, with no social payments paid for the salary supplements, A.U.), and no unemployment compensation or health insurance. As far as they're concerned, once you're done working for them, you should take a one-way ticket back to Israel."
The court did not hear the claimants arguments at all, because it was busy with the question of whether it could make rulings about the employment of workers in security who signed a contract written in Hebrew and were stationed in Berlin with a direct connection to the Israeli embassy and the Ministry of Foreign Affairs. After three years of hearings, the Cottbus court ruled dismissed the claims, stating that the case had to be heard in an Israeli court.
One of the claimants did not give up; she appealed the ruling to a higher labor court in Berlin. The hearing, which took place two weeks ago, was attended by 10 Israeli representatives, including El Al managers, lawyers, lawyers representing the State Attorney's Office, Ministry of Foreign Affairs representatives, a representative from the Prime Minister's Office, and representatives of the Israeli embassy in Berlin.
Following a three-hour hearing, the judge in Berlin ruled that due to the unique character of the claim, continuation of the case required bringing specialist representatives in labor law from Israel who could discuss a contract written in Hebrew. The appellant feared that such a measure would result in tens of thousands of euros in court costs. Instead, she made a statement saying that labor relations had never existed between her and El Al in exchange for the company waiving payment of the appeal costs, and withdrew her appeal.
Even if El Al can take satisfaction from the ruling, the third legal proceeding taking place in Munich still poses a threat. An Israel employee in Munich, who claims that he dealt with administration matters of the security section and was not involved in El Al's security work, sued the company in April 2016 immediately when the company fired him after over five years of work. Another El Al security employee in Munich who was fired several months after the first one there also filed suit.
In contrast to the position they took in Cottbus and Berlin, El Al and the state of Israel decided to file an appeal contesting the local labor court's authority to hear the claim. The court has heard only this issue for the past two years, without discussing labor relations between the parties. The critical ruling on the appeal by the state of Israel and El Al in the matter is scheduled for April.
The two claimants with whom "Globes" spoke criticized the way El Al hires and operates security employees. "El Al publishes its security job offers on Facebook. People study in courses on the El Al site, get El Al flight tickets, and then they are told, 'Actually, you can only be employed by Local Israeli Aviation Worker through the embassy and the consulate.' It's an illogical situation," they said. "El Al is trying to bypass the local laws and the workers' rights through Israeli contracts wherever it can, but where it is clearly unable to do so, it has to employ people legally. It's a successful system."
El Al said in response that it "does not respond to claims relating to the employment of security workers and the outstanding claims being heard in courts in Germany. Furthermore, these workers are employed by the state, and in any case, rulings were made supporting the position of El Al and the state in the matter."
Published by Globes, Israel business news - en.globes.co.il - on March 7, 2019
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