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.
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.
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.
Sami Sa’adi told the gathering that, annually, there are thirty fatalities in the construction industry, as well as tens of thousands of casualties, of whom 2000 are permanently disabled. Another
Asma Aghbarieh Zahalka, speaking for WAC-MAAN, made a passionate plea on behalf of workers, many of whom are unrepresented by unions. She highlighted an alarming rise in the number of fatalities in the first half of 2014, 33% higher than the multi-year average (42 dead workers in the first six months of 2014 in comparison to an average of 30 in half year). Data presented at the conference suggests that a lack of regulated and stable employment is the cause for the rise in casualty numbers. A study of work-related accidents in 2009-2012 by the National Insurance Institute showed that 63% of casualties were employed by sub- contractors.
For many years now, WAC-MAAN has operated within the complex reality of the construction industry, in an attempt to empower construction workers and give them a voice. The majority of such workers in Israel are Arab or foreign: very few young Jewish men choose to become professional builders. Skill development programmes and training courses, previously provided by government, have gradually been withdrawn. Construction workers’ pay is low and is disproportionate to the effort involved and the risks taken. The low status of construction workers is compounded by minimal media exposure of job-related accidents. Additionally, a chronic lack of investment in safety inspections, and, in particular, weak enforcement and penalty mechanisms, have caused an increasing number of fatalities.
Osama Masarwa’s speech to the conference was particularly moving. His father Taufiq died seven years ago, aged 64, in an accident as a result of negligent construction of the scaffolding he was using as a plasterer. Osama said, “I am speaking to you because I believe we must act to stop the negligence which causes so many deaths and injuries. I am here because the work done by WAC-MAAN has encouraged me and persuaded me to speak out and to explain, so that the next accident will be prevented. I call on all of you who go to construction sites each day – to refuse to work in dangerous conditions. Stop what you’re doing before you begin to feel unsafe. Look after your safety and the safety of your colleagues. Give a hand to the effort we are initiating here; the effort to change the reality of construction workers.”
Translated by Yaara Gregory