Viewpoint: The loneliness of the construction worker

The construction of an industrial zone in Kiryat Arba (photo credit: MOSHE BUTBIA/TPS)
The construction of an industrial zone in Kiryat Arba
(photo credit: MOSHE BUTBIA/TPS)
ON WEDNESDAY, May 30, 2018, a construction worker fell to his death on a building site in Bnai Brak. He was the seventeenth building worker to die on a building site in the current year. Sadly, 2018 is by no means unique in witnessing multiple tragic deaths and hundreds of serious injuries in the construction industry. In fact, nothing much has changed in the 25 years since I first came across the problem through my own work, and told anybody prepared to listen that something had to be done about it.
True, there are now organizations such as Kay La’oved and the Coalition Against Construction Accidents as well as various government departments which investigate and monitor, and there are even a few intrepid politicians ready to risk embracing an unpopular cause, while the media have finally sat up and taken notice.
Headlines such as, “Five hours, three dead workers”; “Contempt for workers’ lives”; “Worker killed in 18th death this year [2017] on construction sites”; regularly appear in our newspapers, to be followed by, “State did nothing to construction firms with lots of safety violations”; “Gov’t indifference as crane operators use fake licenses”; and “Sites of building accidents aren’t getting shut down.”
Yet harsh as the criticisms expressed in these articles were, they did not go anywhere near the condemnation the industry deserves.
Within weeks of coming on aliya, I found myself in a position of having to visit building sites. As the head of the British desk at the Jerusalem Foundation, it was my responsibility to report to donors who were funding major construction projects in the city. To say that I was appalled at the conditions I encountered would be a considerable under- statement. To begin with, I had never before seen wooden scaffolding, let alone with insufficient barriers and platforms, an obvious source of accidents waiting to happen. And there was clearly a haphazard policy regarding the wearing of hard hats.
Next, and most distressing to visiting donors, was the complete lack of toilet and changing facilities for the workers. To walk into a half-finished room which had been used as a lavatory and then to another where workers were squatting on the dirty floor to eat their lunch, was a cultural shock which should never be allowed to happen. My initial reaction was to complain to my superiors, who, while sympathetic, could see no realistic way of changing things.
I resolved then and there, that if ever I were to go into politics, the reform of the construction industry would be my ‘cause celebre’. Inevitably, as time went by, the likelihood of entering politics became ever more remote, especially as my Hebrew was stuck at ulpan level. I nevertheless continued to agitate in whatever way I could, until I read that the numbers of fatal and near fatal accidents on building sites had reached completely untenable levels. At that point, I finally took whatever action was available to me.
I contacted Isaac Herzog and was introduced by him to Eyal Ben Reuven, the Zionist Union MK most interested in the subject. He invited me to meet with him in the Knesset. In preparation for this I did some research based on conditions in the construction industry in the UK where I also had some experience. The results were instructive.
Conditions in the industry are regulated in the UK by the Health and Safety Executive which, whilst recognizing that the construction industry is replete with accident possibilities, produces, among others, a detailed booklet on the kind of scaffolding which must be provided by law and the required supervision of it. In addition, the HES publishes instructions to contractors about the provision of toilet facilities, drinking water, washing and rest facilities, changing rooms and lockers, as well as a guide to workers in many languages. Similar conditions apply across the whole of the European Union.
I was aware that Eyal Ben Reuven, together with two colleagues, had initiated a law requiring construction sites to be shut down following a serious accident. This group also drew up a strategic plan for pursuing improvements in the safety record of the industry. Finally, a recent press report announced that a Bill to improve safety on construction sites sponsored by Eyal Ben Reuven and his colleagues is set to be supported by the government, which is at least a start. However, since the laws which do exist are consistently ignored and, in my view, safety is only one aspect of the working conditions which need to be improved, a more extensive reform is clearly called for. Apart from laws not being enforced and penalties not being imposed, workers, usually foreign, Israeli Arabs or Palestinian, are still being killed or maimed and at best suffer appalling conditions, to the point where the Chinese Government has now withdrawn its agreement to send workers to thirty six Israeli building sites. Appointing more inspectors is not, in my opinion, an answer, because they are sent to report on traditional standards, which are already unacceptable. One cannot escape the conclusion that the widespread indifference is born out of there being very few votes in doing something about it.
Maybe the following statistics, the latest available, taken from the Central Bureaux of Israel and the UK will stir a few consciences.
Number of workers in construction in the UK: 2,200,000 Number killed at work 2015-16: 43 =0.001% Number of workers in construction in Israel: 200,000 Numbers killed at work first 9 months of 2016: 40 = 0.2% A report submitted to the Israeli Economy and Industry Ministry and the National Insurance Institute concluded that fatalities in the whole of the European Union are half the rate in Israel where five hundred construction workers have been killed in the last fifteen years.
For a country to lay claim to being a civilized society, it is not enough to be a leader in technological innovation. It must look after its manual workers too.
Jane Biran is a novelist, former journalist and former head of the British Desk at the Jerusalem Foundation.