Arabs, Foreigners Make Up Nearly 90% of Laborer Deaths in Israel This Year

Twenty-eight construction workers have been killed on the job in the first half of 2016.

Rescue services at the site of a parking lot collapse in Tel Aviv, September 5, 2016.
Moti Milrod

Do the nationality and social class of those killed in Israeli construction accidents contribute to governmental sluggishness regarding safety at building sites?

According to figures gathered by a coalition of activists against construction accidents, out of the 39 people killed in 2015, 12 were Palestinians, nine were Israeli Arabs and six where foreigners. The background of some of the victims is not known, but even so, 70 percent were non-Jews. The figure for the first half of this year, during which time 28 construction workers were killed on the job, is even higher – almost 90 percent.

That too is only a partial analysis. It does not include, for example, Palestinian workers who were injured in Israel but were sent in a taxi by the contractor to the Palestinian Authority. Moreover, the difference between government figures and those collected by the activists show how far the Economy Ministry is from full transparency.

Work accidents and occupational illnesses are preventable, according to a March 2014 report submitted by a public panel. The 137-page report, submitted to then-Economy Minister Naftali Bennett, stated, “There is no justification for injuries and loss of life at work and the resulting suffering.” The report concluded, “The government of Israel must take comprehensive preventive steps.”

In keeping with what has become a government tradition, such comprehensive change has not been made, and is unlikely to begin.

The report by the panel, which was headed by Maj. Gen. (res.) Udi Adam, mainly made known the familiar contempt for safety at almost all building sites. Since it was published, the list of those responsible for the safety of Israel’s workers has included Bennett (for 14 months, until May 2015), Interior Minister Arye Dery (May 2015 to November 2015), Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu (November 2015 to August 2016) and for the past six weeks, Social Affairs Minister Haim Katz, who received the relevant slice from the Economy Ministry. These seekers of high office and respect forgot one thing: to fully apply the report they had commissioned. Responsibility for the ongoing safety of workers is theirs.

According to the Safety and Occupational Health Administration, in the first half of this year, 28 workers were killed on the job, as opposed to 17 in the same period last year. Sixteen of these workers were killed at construction sites, compared with eight in 2015. An attempt to discover whether meetings of high-level officials – ministers or director generals – were held about the recommendations, and if so, how many, was unsuccessful. The state comptroller’s report, published in May, might contain hints at the answer.

“Implementation of the main recommendations in the Adam report was to have fundamentally changed the way the state treats safety in the workplace,” State Comptroller Joseph Shapira wrote. According to the report, for 15 months since the plan to implement the recommendations was approved, “the Economy Ministry [as well as the Health Ministry, to which some of the recommendations also apply] have worked sluggishly to advance their implementation. The Economy Ministry defined some of the key recommendations of the Adam report as tasks in the annual work plan, but by the end of the period of the comptroller’s examination, implementation had not begun.”

Sluggishly. The eye reads it, but the mind and heart refuse to accept it.

Since public discussion began about work accidents, the Economy Ministry’s response to its critics has been based mainly on a claim of meager resources. (According to the state comptroller’s report, only 2 percent of building sites where accidents happened in recent years were investigated by Economy Ministry inspectors; about half of all workplaces have never been visited by an inspector.)

A senior official in the Safety and Occupational Health Administration wrote the coalition’s head, attorney Hadas Tagari: “The work of the Economy Ministry inspectors should be considered “comparable to that of a traffic police officer. Just as the latter are not to be found at every given moment on every road in Israel to enforce traffic laws on road users, ability and availability cannot be expected of our people. The resources for inspection at our disposal are known to you.”

This is a problematic comparison, and not just because the conditions of the administration’s workers are the responsibility of the above-mentioned ministers. Precisely because of the meager resources, Tagari says the administration would be expected to come down hard in cases where severe and repeated safety violations are found, especially by major companies. That didn’t happen either. It’s very likely that today, too, construction workers will be injured on the job.