Since the 1990’s, Israel’s construction industry has been characterised by anarchy, mass entry of migrants, a largely temporary workforce, and a move towards sub-contracting. This has created a decline in health and safety standards, resulting in increased work-related fatal accidents and injuries. The recent public campaign against accidents within the construction industry has created new possibilities for change and for workers’ empowerment.
Osama Natur of Arara in Israel lost his father, Taufik, 64, in a construction-site accident in 2007. Taufik was killed in Tel Aviv while plastering when the rail of the scaffold he was standing on collapsed because of the contractor’s negligence.
Three men were charged of causing Taufik’s death by negligence: the main works contractor, the foreman and the scaffolding contractor. However, when Osama wanted to understand what had gone wrong and approached the relevant authorities, he was met with a blanket refusal to hand over information. In 2010 he managed to find out the time and place of the last hearing in the trial of the three men. On arrival at the court, he was horrified to discover that a plea bargain had been reached, according to which the three men pleaded guilty to causing death by negligence and received a fine of NIS 6,700 each; the main contractor was also sentenced to six months of community service.
It is difficult to describe the frustration and anger felt by Osama and his family, as well as others, as a result of this case, which is typical of the way in which such workplace accidents are responded to by the authorities. According to recent figures published by the Knesset Information Centre, out of 184 accidental deaths in the construction industry between the years 2010-2014, only 90 cases were investigated and only 11 prosecuted. This means that over 90% of construction workers’ deaths were never scrutinised by the court system, with the result that those responsible for criminal negligence continue unimpeded as before.
This view of the reality was confirmed by the National Contractors Registrar during a Knesset Work and Welfare Committee meeting which took place on February 9, 2016. The Registrar revealed that on no occasion during the past decade has he been in a position to revoke a contractor’s licence to operate. Such a revocation would require a criminal negligence conviction, and no such conviction took place during that period.
On average, two construction workers suffer serious injury every day. In 2014 there were 569 serious injuries, a 20% rise compared to 2011. One construction worker is killed every one or two weeks on average, amounting to about 30 deaths per year. Despite these shocking figures, no one seemed to care until a few months ago: the injured and the dead are Arabs from Israel or Palestinians from the West Bank, or else they are migrant workers from China or Eastern Europe.
The struggle against accidents goes to the top of the agenda
In the past few months an unprecedented campaign has gathered momentum, calling for an end to the status quo within the construction industry. The Coalition against Accidents in the Workplace was created by lawyers and workers, civil society and human rights bodies such as Worker’s Hotline, the Association for Civil Rights, Physicians for Human Rights and WAC-MAAN. The Coalition has raised awareness of this problem through a series of articles and extensive media coverage. Responding to pressure created by the Coalition, the Knesset Committee for Work and Welfare held two meetings to discuss this issue; it also conducted a surprise visit to the construction site where Palestinian worker Ahmed Birawi had been killed in January.
The Coalition has exposed shocking figures about the construction industry. Public scrutiny has also brought into focus the role of the Safety and Health Administration, which employs only 17 inspectors to monitor and regulate 13,000 building sites – about 750 sites per inspector. Moreover, under media pressure it has been revealed that the administration currently has 24 vacancies for inspectors’ jobs. However, these remain unfilled because of the low pay – about NIS 6,500/month before tax, and because travel expenses to the sites are not provided. Moreover, according to an investigation by a Haaretz reporter, the Health and Safety inspection budget has been cut in the past few years: in 2014-2015 the number of construction sites rose from 11,000 to 13,000 while the number of inspections declined from 6,325 to 5,020.
The collapse of organised work within the construction industry
This status quo is not inevitable. In the UK, for example, the authorities, in cooperation with a vigorous trade union and families of victims have managed a dramatic reduction in the number of accidents. Conversely, here in Israel we witness a worsening situation: In 2014 the number of construction-site fatalities in Israel was 11.53 per 100,000 (there are 217,000 construction workers in Israel). In the UK, by contrast, the figure for the same year stood at 1.6 per 100,000.
This worsening scenario is caused by privatisation and outsourcing within the industry, especially in relation to what is known as wet jobs, i.e. the dangerous work of constructing the skeleton of a building. In the past, large construction companies used to directly employ thousands of permanent workers. These were trained in health and safety standards and in handling new technologies. The arrangements also used to ensure that workers were acquainted with each other and had reasonable working hours. But since the 1990’s the situation has been typically the opposite.
Instead of working for large, established companies such as Solel Boneh, Ashtrum, Danya Sibus, A. Libber, A. Dorri and others, every construction site now uses dozens of subcontractors. The contracts are so draconian and competitive that the subcontractors find it difficult to produce even 1% profit. Main foremen within the sites do not know the workers, so they cannot monitor their work effectively. It is not uncommon for a new worker to present certificates, such as crane or work-at-height permits, which have been issued to someone else; often the forgery goes unchecked. As for training in advanced working methods and embedding new technologies, these are of low priority.
The Histadrut’s Construction Workers Union was not the cause of this dramatic deterioration. However, it did nothing to counter the destructive effects of these changes on workers’ lives. In the absence of a deterrent, the large building companies and the Contractors Union are out of control. Furthermore, there is hardly any government inspection and a total failure to investigate and punish the negligent contractors.
As an example of outsourcing, lobbying by the industry’s big players resulted last September in 20,000 visas being issued to Chinese construction workers. This decision was passed against economists’ advice, and despite a government decision from 2010 according to which no work permits are to be issued from countries which refuse to sign a bilateral agreement that reduces commission fees. WAC-MAAN was central in initiating a campaign against this decision that faces obstacles and until now has not been implemented.
While government investment in inspection and monitoring dwindles, and professional training budgets are cancelled, there is a rise in housing prices, enabling contractors and the government to rake in increased profits and taxes. As a result, it becomes increasingly difficult to improve the already rickety state of workers’ health and safety. The work force is divided among small sub-contractors, and any attempt to unionise seems a pipe dream.
Despite the crucial importance of the construction industry, which forms 10% of the economy, and despite the profits it brings, its business is conducted as though in a third world country. Building sites are completely anarchic and safety regulations widely ignored: anyone can walk into a site unimpeded, and safety helmets are not insisted on. No one is called to account for accidents, and the only ones to suffer are the victims and their families.
Workers will decide
The Coalition against Accidents in the Construction Workplace aims to change the destructive trend. At this stage most of its efforts are put into exposing accidents, as well as lobbying for changes in regulations and for deterrents against negligence in management.
Hadas Tagari, the legal expert who founded the Coalition, has approached the Knesset with a paper in which she claims that the Safety and Health Administration already has legal authority to shut down any site in which a serious accident takes place and to keep it shut pending a thorough investigation. This is the case, she claims, even in the current state of limited budgets and few inspectors. According to Tagari, the root of the evil is disregard for human life, as exemplified by the fact that a few hours after a serious accident a site continues to operate as though nothing had happened.
Action by the Coalition has opened new hope for workers; its work is important, effective and necessary, but not sufficient. Its public campaign has started “at the top,” but it must be translated into grassroots action by the workers themselves, to shift the balance of power between them and construction company bosses. Change will not occur without participation by the workers.
The WAC-MAAN trade union is a central partner in the Coalition against Accidents in the Construction Workplace. For a over a decade now it has empowered workers, raising their awareness and guiding their demands for safer jobs. WAC-MAAN’s partnership has enabled Osama Natur to continue to call for justice and transparency. “I cannot bring my father back,” he says, “but I must do everything to prevent the next accident.” For the first time, the cries of the victims and their families is being heard. Katy Karkolov, a crane operator who at the end of February was fired for leaving her position in the middle of a shift because of high winds, has received mass media exposure for her plight and that of other crane operators.
The Coalition’s campaign encompasses two aspects, which are central to every such struggle. First, it places the fate of Arab workers – a population which suffers institutional discrimination – firmly on the public agenda; the struggle for the lives and dignity of construction workers is also a struggle for equality and against racism. In addition, it is part of a much wider social struggle against the ugly face of capitalism, an attempt to place life and welfare before profit, to provide fair work for local people instead of importing cheap, powerless labourers, and to demand that the government as well as the industry’s large players take responsibility. The combination of a public campaign and grassroots action has the potential to push forward an agenda which affects each one of us, defending the worker’s right to life, secure employment, welfare, and dignity.
* Assaf Adiv is National Director of the WAC-MAAN trade union and is a central member of the Coalition against Accidents in the Construction Workplace.