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 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.

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About Assaf Adiv