WAC MAAN Conference of Arab workers demands: stop deadly accidents in Israeli construction sites

<p>The unprecedented conference gave voice to the union’s demands for change in safety procedures at construction sites.</p>

An original play, ‘Red Shoes’, was the endnote to a conference organised by WAC-MAAN Workers Union in Kufr Qara in Northern Israel, attended by hundreds of Arab construction workers. The unprecedented conference gave voice to the union’s demands for change in safety procedures at construction sites. Speakers warned of a sharp rise in fatalities in the first half of 2014, as well as thousands of permanent disabilities as a result of preventable accidents.

The central character in ‘Red Shoes’ is Hitham, an Arab student, who drops out of high school when the authorities fail to overcome his learning difficulties and to see his remarkable artistic talents. His father and the head-teacher decide it is better if he joins his uncle Hassan’s building company. At the construction site the youngster is expected to do skilled work which demands training and experience, neither of which he receives. The workplace is presented as a jungle in which the contractor’s focus on cost- cutting leads to a pressurised environment and irresponsible management. The result, a fall, leaves Hitham paralysed. While in hospital he finds a friend who helps him pursue and develop his art.

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The play was written and directed by Guy Elhannan, helped by Noah Abend Elhannan (stage and puppet design). Guy Elhannan visited construction sites and talking to workers. He became familiar with the macho atmosphere and tough reality of these places, especially for the young. His play is a faithful depiction of this reality. Hitham is played by the gifted actor Morad Hassan, who also plays other characters, embodied through puppets.

The play was the end-piece to WAC-MAAN’s conference, which took place on Saturday, September 20, 2014 in the Cultural Center of Kufr Qara village. About two hundred workers watched the play, which was extremely well received. Morad Hassan told us how touched he was by the attention and identification he felt coming from the audience. He said, “I have taken part in plays staged in Arab villages in the past, even in this very hall. Usually, attention from the audience is poor. But here, today, it was different. The audience was focused on the stage, communicated with me, and showed interest in the play.”

The reason for the audience’s emotional involvement is clear. Anyone who spends time at construction sites in Israel nowadays knows that serious accidents are inevitable. An absence of leadership, monitoring and inspection—and  especially the fragmentation of building company in every large scale project into dozens of sub-contractor groups—have combined in recent years to create a transient labour force in a chaotic work environment. Men receive fictitious paychecks and no benefits; investment in safety measures is non-existent; sites are dirty and neglected. The next accident is always a question of time and luck. It is no coincidence that the ratio of fatal accidents in Israel’s construction branch is 12.6 per 100,000, six times more than the deadly accidents in the UK (1.98 killed per 100000).

This dangerous state of affairs was vividly portrayed by speakers at the conference which was the last part of a WAC-MAAN project designed to raise awareness of safety issues among construction workers. The project that was supported for one year by Manof Fund (Manof is a fund of the National Insurance) included workshops with construction workers in the Arab Towns and in work sites.

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The conference was led by Wafa Tiara of WAC-MAAN. The speakers were: Walid Mansour, who is Chief Inspector of work safety in the Ministry of Economy; Sami Sa’adi, regional manager of the Institute for Occupational Safety and Hygiene; Hassan Shouli, safety expert for the project, and safety activist Osama Masarwa, whose father died in a job accident. Also present were WAC-MAAN National Director, Assaf Adiv and Asma Aghbarieh Zahalka, who coordinated the project for WAC-MAAN. Another speaker in the conference was Jan Mathisen, a Danish union activist who was part of a delegation from the Danish trade union 3F, that attended the conference.

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