Construction workers in Israel: A campaign against workplace accidents creates possibilities for change

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<p>The recent public campaign against accidents within the construction industry has created new possibilities for change and for workers' empowerment.</p>
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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.

WAC MAAN sponsored a meeting with construction workers and relatives of workers killed in its Baqa Al Gharbia office – attended by MK Jamal Zahalka and WAC MAAN's Director Assaf Adiv

WAC MAAN sponsored a meeting with construction workers and relatives of workers killed in its Baqa Al Gharbia office – attended by MK Jamal Zahalka and WAC MAAN’s Director Assaf Adiv

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.

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About Assaf Adiv