Something must be done for the construction workers of Israel - opinion

Hopefully, the new government will be more sensitive to the issue and be ready to take effective measures.

 Construction work on Carlebach Street in Tel Aviv (photo credit: MARC ISRAEL SELLEM)
Construction work on Carlebach Street in Tel Aviv
(photo credit: MARC ISRAEL SELLEM)

Four years ago, I published an article in The Jerusalem Report titled “The loneliness of the construction worker.” In that article, I expressed outrage at the conditions in the building industry in Israel, which I had personally witnessed and was continually reading about in the media. I made a comparison then between the standards in the industry that prevailed in Europe and the lamentable lack of them here.

I knew I was not alone in my protests. There are organizations, among them Kav La’oved, which exist solely for the purpose of monitoring workers’ conditions, campaigning about the lack of official effort to improve the situation, and lobbying the Occupational Safety Division of the Labor, Social Affairs and Social Services Ministry. And I learned during a meeting at the Knesset with then-MK Eyal Ben Reuven that an all-party committee had been convened to deal with the situation. Sadly, Ben Reuven lost his seat in the April 2019 election, and nothing more has been heard about the committee since.

In the meantime, 86 workers died in work accidents in 2020, most of them on building sites, representing a 22% increase over the previous year, the highest rate since 1995. In 2021, 32 workers died in accidents at construction sites in Israel and hundreds more were injured, but fewer indictments were filed for safety violations, according to the Economy and Industry Ministry’s Safety Administration.

According to statistics accumulated by the Davar Rishon online newspaper [February 2019], a worker in the construction industry is seven times more likely to suffer fatal injuries than the average worker. The construction workers are 7.2% of the Israeli workforce but are almost 50% of workplace fatalities, and more than a third of the accidents that result in the death of a worker are from falls from inadequate scaffolding. It should be noted that these figures do not include accidents that occur over the Green Line. Even so, Israel ranks third out of all OECD countries in the number of fatalities in the construction industry.

It is now two years since the Histadrut threatened a general strike if the government did not improve the safety laws on building sites. It resulted in an agreement for the enforcement of European standard scaffolding, the compulsory wearing of protective headgear and harnesses, new regulations for crane operators, and the mandatory issuing of safety guidelines to contractors.

 Construction workers at the Likit junction in the Negev desert region begin work on the new IDF intelligence center (credit: MINISTRY OF DEFENSE) Construction workers at the Likit junction in the Negev desert region begin work on the new IDF intelligence center (credit: MINISTRY OF DEFENSE)

Until now only the least stringent of the clauses of the agreement has been implemented, a few have been partially enacted, but on most, nothing at all has been done. In the face of this failure to abide by the agreement and the decision of the Histadrut to take no further action, the headline of the December 1 editorial in Haaretz was able to announce “even the labor union doesn’t care.” And still, workers are killed by falling from unstable scaffolding, the latest in Ashdod in July last year.

Haaretz has continued to highlight its concern with yet another editorial headed, “Who cares about workers dying?” [July 15, 2021]. This headline more or less sums up the attitude to what amounts to a national scandal by those with the power to do something about it.

The absence of a functioning government for part of the period since the last Histadrut protest is no excuse since it made no difference when there was a government. There had been fatalities in the previous year and in the year before that, and there will be more of them with each passing year until somebody in authority realizes that it is a blot on the fabric of Israeli society.

It is the duty of the government of a democratic system to maintain moral standards and the human rights and equality of every person living and working in that country. Failing to find a solution to the problems in the construction industry amounts to a case of criminal neglect. Add to the lack of governmental action, the casual attitude of the contractors who continue to ignore existing regulations or to improvise in the interest of cutting costs, the passing of responsibility from one authority to the other, and the general apathy among the public, it becomes clear that something needs to be done.

The solution begins with an official admission that the prevailing indifference springs from the vast majority of the victims of their employers’ neglect being Palestinian or foreign workers who have nobody to represent them and do not have a vote, but they all have names and are husbands, fathers and brothers.

The admission must be followed with the enactment of new laws requiring contractors to follow internationally approved safety regulations and the enforcement of existing laws. Penalties for failure to comply should be significantly increased. It has been clear from media reports that it is rare for a contractor to be handed a punishment that anywhere near fits the crime.

Another Haaretz report from 2018 described the work of some building site inspectors who visited 700 sites and fined 660 contractors for substandard scaffolding and failure to carry out safety checks. Even those inspectors themselves acknowledged that the fines they regularly imposed were not of the kind to deter future infringements.

In any case, the number of inspectors who to date have been appointed is derisory in the face of the number of construction sites in the country. At one time the government agreed with the Histadrut to appoint 90, but there were only 54 by the end of last year.

All of this, in addition to the lack of training and welfare facilities for the workers, can be put right given the will to do it. Hopefully, the new government will be more sensitive to the issue and be ready to take effective measures, backed by the Histadrut, a new media campaign, pressure from parties within the coalition, and a more aware general public.