Paths of lucre lead to the grave

Click to follow
Tel Aviv grave-diggers are refusing to bury anybody before 4pm in protest against the government's attempt to cut their wages. The work-to-rule started when the Religious Affairs ministry discovered that Yisrael Erlich, the manager of the 80-strong state-owned burial society in the city, was paying himself the equivalent of pounds 300,000 a year.

Mr Erlich also looked after his men and, although the society was heavily in debt, paid the average grave digger pounds 3,700 a month and body-washers almost as much. When an auditor's report revealed that "salaries verged on madness", a horrified ministry produced a plan to reduce costs and provoked the go-slow.

Unabashed, the grave-diggers are demanding a 20-per-cent increase in pay. They also have a novel idea for payment in kind. They want two grave- plots to be allocated free to each grave-digger at five-year intervals and which he can use or sell for his own profit. As Israel is short of cemetery space, the grave-diggers stand to make a killing on the transaction.

Shimon Shetreet, the Religious Affairs Minister, has ordered that "wages be reduced to reasonable levels". He has set up an emergency committee which plans to cut the number of workers in the society by 5 per cent a year. But the work-to-rule has already begun to bite. In its first hours 30 burials in Tel Aviv had to be postponed.

The burial society in Tel Aviv is the largest in the country, responsible for interring anybody out of a Jewish population of two million who dies in or around the city.

It is not clear how the Tel Aviv grave-diggers managed to pay themselves so much. Mr Erlich, who has just retired, masterminded the scheme, paying other managers in excess of pounds 60,000 a year. The head of the Jerusalem Burial Society, Chaim Yitzhak Cohen, says: "At the gatherings of burial- society members the hairs on our heads would stand on end when we heard of the salaries paid in Tel Aviv. There were irregularities which happen nowhere else in the world."

The government has asked for a legal opinion on how to get some of the money back, but the Histadrut trade union federation is backing the grave- diggers' struggle. The auditors have suggested legal proceedings. This outcome is all the more likely since they discovered that Mr Erlich was supplementing his salary by acting as chairman of the burial society, for which he received another pounds 94,000.