As the final date for emptying Israel’s disputed ammonia storage tank draws near, Haifa Chemicals has notified some 800 employees of intentions to shut down two factories and eliminate their jobs.
The company will be closing its plants in both the North and the South, and dismissing all employees that work at these facilities in the process, a statement from Haifa Chemicals said on Wednesday. The move occurred after months of paying the workers while the company’s factories were not functioning, according to a letter sent to Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu by the firm’s management.
“We made the decision – not a simple one, but according to Jewish moral values and based on the fact that the government would work diligently and in good faith to advance a resolution – to continue employing all of our workers, even though we did not have work for them, since the factory was shut down,” Jules Trump, controlling shareholder of Haifa Chemicals, wrote to Netanyahu. “Thus, we absorbed losses of tens of millions of shekels every month.”
The factories have not been able to operate since April, due to a government prohibition on refilling the company’s 12,000-ton ammonia processing and storage facility, a second letter sent to northern employees explained.
The tank in question, which stores all of the ammonia imported by Israel, has long been dubbed by environmentalists as a “ticking time bomb” and has been subject to legal battles for years. The facility began to garner international attention last year, when Hezbollah chief Hassan Nasrallah threatened to attack it.
This spring, the High Court of Justice initially ruled that the tank must be emptied entirely by April – a deadline that was eventually extended to July 31, and then to September 18, following a series of appeals. Yet despite that delay, Haifa Chemicals has not been allowed to refill the tank with more ammonia during this waiting period.
Haifa Chemicals is owned by the American holding company Trance Resource Inc., which is controlled by the Trump Group, where Jules Trump serves as chairman of the board. A Jewish-American businessman born in South Africa, Trump has no relation to US President Donald Trump.
Already after receiving word about the company’s lay-off intentions on Tuesday evening, Haifa Chemicals employees slammed the Trump family for handling the situation poorly.
Over the past few months, members of the workers committee met with the owners twice, requesting that the managers promise to maintain their terms of employment even after the ammonia crisis was resolved, a spokesman for the workers said. Nonetheless, they received no response from the Trumps, the spokesman added.
“This is a scandalous response by management, which is continuing to intimidate workers,” said Eli Elbaz, chairman of the Haifa Chemicals North workers committee.
While four years have passed since the government alerted Haifa Chemicals about the need to find alternative locations for the ammonia tank, the company has done nothing, the workers committee stressed. The employees were referring to a 2013 cabinet decision that called for the eventual shutdown of the tank, as well as the transfer of the facility to a much less populated location in the Negev.
Emphasizing that the company also already knew in March that the tank would soon be shut down entirely, the workers accused the management of “making cynical use of 1,500 employees and their families in the North and South.”
“The attempt to present the ammonia crisis as a complicated battle that has no guilty parties is wrong,” added Eli Lotati, a committee member. “The entire time, there has been only one body that bears responsibility – the company’s management.”
On Wednesday afternoon, Histadrut labor federation chairman Avi Nissenkorn warned that if no solution is found on the Haifa Chemicals matter, solidarity strikes would take place throughout the country next Tuesday.
“Enough with the procrastination and the chatter and enough with the show of foolishness connected with the handling of Haifa Chemicals,” Nissenkorn said. “Hundreds of families and the entire Israeli economy are paying a heavy price. I expect the parties, including representatives of the government and the owners of the company, to find an immediate solution. The Histadrut will extend its hand to any possibility that will save the workers’ livelihood. If no solution is found, on Tuesday there will be a strike throughout the South and additional solidarity strikes across the country.”
In response to the employee accusations, Trump told The Jerusalem Post on Wednesday evening that the fault lies with the government, rather than with the company’s management.
“For the past nine months we’ve been trying to get an answer from the government, how we’re going to get ammonia,” Trump said. “This fight is not about a tank; it’s not about the tank in Haifa Bay. The issue is we want continuity of ammonia.”
Trump recalled the 2013 decision to move the ammonia tank to the Negev, pointing out that the government issued tender documents in 2015 for the construction of that factory. Yet in November 2016, the Environmental Protection Ministry announced that the tendering process for that step failed.
Over the past nine months, Trump said, the government has made a number of promises regarding ammonia supply and has failed to follow through, despite the fact that Haifa Chemicals offered 12 different alternative solutions, such as the use of small onshore “Isotanks” for an interim period.
“We cannot even go to the bathroom without the approval of the Environment [Ministry],” Trump said. “My boss is the Environment [Ministry]. For the employees to be saying that we have responsibility is just a figment of their imagination.”
To continue operating its plants, Haifa Chemicals needed a government commitment to maintain continuity of supply, so that the company’s customers would not shift their business to competitors, he explained. At this point, Trump said, he does not envision a situation in which the 800 employees could be rehired.
“It’s hard to put the genie back in the bottle,” he added. “For me, I’m heartbroken, and it’s a very upsetting situation.”