Hadassah-Brandeis Institute

Unequal Pay in Pre-State Israel: Time for a Change

Oct. 22, 2014

By Lilach Lurie

In a recent research, I found that most sectorial collective agreements in Israel provide male workers with a right to a family wage. Sectorial collective agreements are reached between unions and employers, and once extended by the minister they bind all the workers and employers in the relevant sector. According to the agreements, male workers whose spouses are not working are entitled to a monetary supplement to their wages. Female workers are not similarly entitled. In other words, collective agreements, which are part of the binding labor law of Israel, provide unequal pay for men and women. While these laws may have made sense at one time, I think it is time for a change.

Granted, family wage is today a very small portion of a worker's wage. Indeed, many Israeli employers ignore collective agreement provisions including family supplement provisions. Still, family wage arrangements contradict the Israeli Equal Pay Law and should therefore be considered void. Nevertheless, although 50 years have passed since the enactment of the Israeli Equal Pay Law, family wage arrangements have yet to be canceled.

The idea of family wage is not a uniquely Israeli idea. In many countries including the U.S., the U.K., Australia and Germany, employers once paid a "family wage" to male married workers. Henry Ford, to give one well-known example, paid his famous $5-a-day salary mainly to "decently married" men. While countries differ from each other, a few commonalities can be found between them. Generally speaking, family wage arrangements were popular in the period following the Industrial Revolution and between the two World Wars. During the 1960s and the 1970s, many countries enacted equal pay laws (the U.S. enacted an Equal Pay Law in 1963; the U.K. enacted an Equal Pay Law in 1970 and Israel enacted an Equal Pay Law in 1964). With the onset of feminist movements and the enactment of equal pay laws, family wage arrangements were cancelled in most countries, albeit not in Israel.

Family wage arrangements seem at first glance as representing straightforward old stereotypes about women's and men’'s roles. Men are the breadwinners who go to work and women are the caregivers who stay at home. According to these stereotypes, women who do go to work can settle with a modest salary. Indeed, women began entering the labor market in large numbers only in the second half of the 20th century. In the first half of the 20th century, men dominated the labor market. The employers and union representatives were mainly men. Women were hardly represented in wage bargaining or in collective negotiations.

Nonetheless, the idea of family wage in Israel is not only "patriarchal" in nature, but has roots in historical context. Family wage was a tool to achieve social justice. More than 20 years before the establishment of Israel, Israel's future first prime minister and founding father, David Ben-Gurion, promoted "family wage" as a way to reach equality between Jewish workers in pre-state Israel (i.e., in British controlled mandatory Palestine). In the second assembly of the Histadrut, to this day the largest workers' union in Israel, in February 1923, David-Ben Gurion explained the ideology of family wage arrangements: "Until the economic situation in the country will enable complete equality between the workers, the Histadrut shall determine from time to time maximum and minimum wages. These maximum and minimum wages will change across time and places."

Israel's founding fathers, Ben-Gurion among them, determined that a father of three children needs a higher income than a bachelor or a woman. Similarly, a worker who lives in a city needs a higher income then a worker who lives in a village. According to them, these considerations should be taken into the design of maximum and minimum wages.

Family wage in pre-state Israel should therefore be understood as a tool designed to achieve equality, though not gender equality, and social justice. Family wage should be understood in its own social and historical context: before the establishment of Israel, before the establishment of an advanced welfare system, and before the enactment of the Israeli Minimum Wage Law. Nonetheless, even if family wage arrangements could have been justified in the first half of the 20 century, they certainly cannot be justified in the 21st century.

Lilach Lurie is a HBI Helen Gartner Hammer scholar-in-residence and a professor at Tel-Aviv University Department of Labor Studies.