Strike Grounds 4,000 Travelers at Ben Gurion

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JERUSALEM, Israel -- Thousands of international travelers were stranded for six hours on Wednesday as staff at Ben Gurion International Airport outside Tel Aviv went on strike from 6:00 a.m. until noon.

Some 4,000 passengers were delayed or unable to retrieve their luggage when the powerful Histadrut Labor Federation launched the nationwide general strike.

Schools, hospitals, government offices, trains and busses, the stock exchange and post office are affected by the strike.

All-night deliberations between the Histadrut and the Treasury failed to prevent the strike over the employment status of contract workers.

Government offices here often hire workers from agencies to avoid paying higher salaries and costly benefits. Reports quoted Histradrut officials saying there are up to 400,000 contracted workers.

Histadrut chairman Ofer Eini said Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu could end the strike by endorsing the agreement reached between the Histadrut and the Federation of Israeli Economic Organizations, which represents private employers.

The agreement calls on employers to directly hire contract workers who have been employed for at least one year instead of going through an employment agency. In addition, salaries and benefits for contract workers paid through an agency would be the same as regular employees.

"If the PM agrees, the strike will end," Eini said.

Finance Minister Yuval Steinitz said the strike could cost the economy billions of shekels.

"Unfortunately, the Histadrut is entrenched in its position, which is likely to drag Israel into an unnecessary strike that will cost the economy billions of shekels," the Finance Ministry said in an earlier statement.

On Tuesday afternoon, Netanyahu said "a strike will not solve the problem of contract workers."

"It is possible to improve the conditions of contract workers without shutting down the economy and disrupting citizens' lives. There is no magic solution to the employment problems that have been created here over decades; it is possible to resolve the issue through dialogue," Netanyahu said.

According to the Federation of Israeli Chambers of Commerce, the economy will loose 400 million shekels (approximately a hundred million dollars) each week the strike continues.

The High Court of Justice earlier rejected a petition by the FICC to avoid the strike. The court ruled that despite potentially heavy losses to the economy, it would not intervene in the National Labor Court's ruling.

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The Jerusalem Post and Ha'aretz contributed to this report.

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