WAC Maan – the independent trade union organized the onference in Nazareth, at the Rimonim Hotel, on the 23rd of July, 2011
This first of its kind national conference took place through the initiative of WAC-Maan, on Saturday, July 23rd, to discuss the topic of safety in the workplace. The main message of the conference to 160 participants from the field of construction and their wives was that workplace accidents are not an edict from Heaven. There is no accident that cannot be prevented. The goal of the conference was to shake the public in view of shocking numbers: 30 yearly deaths of construction workers, most of them Arabs or migrant workers, and the injuring of above 6,200.
The conference opened with a moment of silence in memory of workers who were killed in workplace accidents. The safety organizer at WAC, Asma Aghbarieh Zahalka, presented the project she has been running for the past year, whose goal is to increase awareness about workplace safety laws among construction workers; this project has been subsidized by Manof, a fund of the National Insurance. Some 300 workers and 600 school pupils benefited from workshops led by WAC’s staff and by Mr. Hassan Shuli a safety appointee.
“In light of the problem of transferring work over to many subcontractors in order to limit the responsibility of big companies towards their workers, we should demand” said Agbarieh-Zahalka, “an increase of the responsibility of the Ministry of Trade and Labour to apply the safety rules, and to combine this with an increase in awareness of these regulations among the workers”. She also stressed the role of the workers’ wives in putting pressure on their husbands to pay attention to the rules. At the end of the day they are the ones who will be affected emotionally and financially by the unnecessary murder or serious injury of the worker.”
Faez Shteiwi, owner of the newspaper “Kol El Arab,” who lost his brother, Nader (who died at 58 years old) two weeks before in a construction accident, spoke for the bereaved families. Shteiwi said: “I have always covered these accidents. This is the first time I am in the shoes of the bereaved. I also thought that it wouldn’t happen to me. When I say that my brother Nader could have prevented the accident if he had done such and such… people say to me, you are a heretic, it was fate. Until today I do not know how he died. He was found dead at the foot of the building with no protective gear that could have prevented his death. If you are a construction worker, you must think one hundred times about how you can return home safely. There is nothing worth risking your life for, no matter how difficult your circumstances.”
Saber Kilani of Yafa a-Nasira, 36 years old and with 18 years of experience in construction, raised questions about the authorities’ disregard for the life of a construction worker. He gave many examples of how contructors violate workers’ rights and safety regulations out of greed.
Kilani spoke of the phenomenon of contractors who have their workers sign a form which says that they received personal instruction and protective gear, and that they are required to wear it, when this is not the reality. The form legally covers these contractors in the case of an accident. He spoke about accidents that took place before his eyes, accidents that could have been prevented if the foreman had done his work faithfully, and if the workers had not put their lives and the lives of their fellow workers in danger. In the end, Kilani told the workers: “If you do not protect you own lives, no one else will either. Your health should be precious to you, but if it not, think of those to whom your life is even more precious—your mother, your wife, your children. Think of them!
Varda Edwards, Head Deputy Inspector of Labor in the Office of Ministry and Trade and Labour, said that this conference was very important, and related to the responsibility of the employer and the foreman for workers’ health and safety, as well as their obligation to instruct their workers and provide them with the appropriate gear to protect them from mortal danger. Edwards pointed out that there are rules and regulations that require this, yet the reality on the ground is a far cry from what the law demands. Eewards: “The Ministry of Trade and Labour has a hard time enforcing these laws because of a shortage of overseers. The biggest contribution of this conference will be if each participant becomes a messenger and reports to us in the Ministry about problems of safety in new construction sites or about problems at already existing sites. This can help prevent an accident before it happens.”
Professor Yechiel Rosenfeld, Head of the Program for Construction Management at the Technion (Israel Technology Institute), shared with those present the fact that he too did not understand at first the severity of accidents in the field of construction: “We dealt often with technology, scheduling, and money, but we did not place enough importance on the issue of safety. Only during the past seven years did I begin to become aware of safety management as an important aspect of work management. Safety is no less important than speed or budgeting in construction. This is the contribution we are trying to pass on to the engineers who study at the Technion.”
Rosenfeld pointed out that for each fatal accident there are 1,000 incidents of “near accident.” Construction is based on work that is full of risks. It is responsible for 10% of the gross national product and employs 10% of the work force. Yet it is also responsible for 50% of the deaths that occur during work accidents. In the Technion we included a new procedure that fits the new work methods. But these are directions of engineers who are not on the ground and do not know how they are being applied. If you see something that is a consistent threat, that happens day after day, you must complain.”
Dr. Sami Sa’adi, the director of the Health and Safety Institution, clarified that the statistics aired at the conference were conservative, and that in reality the numbers are much greater. The International Labor Organization (ILO) speaks of 2.7 million instances worldwide of death each year as a result of work accidents and work-related illnesses (more than AIDS, road accidents, and heart disease).
In the year 2009 there were 60,000 workers who received compensation from Social Security. Relative to the European market, our situation here is good,” said Sa’adi. “But if we look at what lies beneath the surface of the data, it seems that the picture is deceptive. The data relates only to workers who were absent more than 12 days and not three days as was once the case. That means that all injuries that lasted for fewer than 12 days did not enter into the statistics at all.”
“In the area of construction the situation is much worse than in the other areas. The number of deaths is on the rise and has reached 50% of all fatalities. The decrease in the number of casualties is a result only of the decrease of construction in Israel. 95% of the accidents could have been prevented and are the result of human error and unsafe behavior or negligence (according to U.N. data). In other words, we can prevent all of those accidents. The new methods to prevent accidents are based on management that includes the subject of safety, surveying the risks, and presenting alternatives that are safe and will prevent the worker from endangering himself.”
Hassan Shuli, the safety appointee who directed WAC’s project: “If I were to tell you that one of you will die next week it’s not because I am a prophet, but because I know the statistics that report 52 deaths from workplace accidents a year. This year the situation is even harsher, since during the first six months 31 workers were killed. I turn to the contractors an tell them “work me to the bone, but let me return home after work in one piece, not in a black bag.” Shuli emphasized to the workers their responsibility : “Do you feel endangered? Let this be known. Don’t continue to work when you are endangered at your work place.” He approached the Ministry of Trade and Labour as well: “When will the first indictment be served against those who caused the death of a worker by negligence? When will you give overseers the authority of police to retract the license of a foreman or contractor?”. He ended his talk and called the workers who were present to be messengers and to publicize what has been said in the conference.
Assaf Adiv, National Coordinator WAC-Maan, spoke about the connection between trade unions and the ability to protect the health of workers: “trade unions are the most powerful way to protect the life of the worker from the dangers that exist at construction sites, more powerful than any regulation code or procedure. Construction workers constitute 10% of the work force, but they are the ones that build the whole state. The problem is that we are talking about workers who are Arab or foreign, which is why there is neglect. There is a group of workers from the Sal’it quarry who have been on strike now for forty days. They are striking because of the disregard of the management for their lives, their rights, and their health. They say—work with rights and security, or there will be no work!”
We call upon the workers to take responsibility and begin to organize in WAC. We are building a base to build a hotline that will centralize workers’ complaints and make sure rules and regulations are applied. There is data that shows that the existence of a unions in British workplace lowered the number of fatal work accidents by 25%. We do not need to wait for changes from above. The worker is the one with the immediate interest in change, and therefore he is the one who must be the vanguard for change.” With this optimistic call we closed the first conference, with a promise to continue to organize workers and protect our lives”.