Labor Federation Threatens General Strike Over Spate of Construction-site Accidents

Labor minister tells Histadrut to 'propose new ideas and not recycle issues' after organization demands improvement in safety at building sites

A construction site in Bnei Brak, Israel.
Tomer Appelbaum

The Histadrut labor federation on Sunday declared a work dispute throughout the economy to protest the numerous work accidents at construction sites. This allows the labor federation to call a general strike in two weeks if its demands to improve safety at building sites are not met.

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The organization is demanding “a series of measures to preserve and protect the right of workers to a safe work environment,” saying it had declared the dispute “due to the large number of deaths and injuries in work accidents.”

Labor and Social Affairs Minister Haim Katz responded to the demands with a critical letter to Histadrut chairman Avi Nissenkorn. “I suggest that you propose new ideas and not recycle issues that are being dealt with for more than a year. We’re always prepared to give you credit,” he wrote. While he welcomed the Histadrut decision to take part in the effort to improve safety at building sites, he stressed that “direct responsibility for worker safety rests first and foremost with the contractors,” who, Katz said, are in many cases not following the law and are putting lives at risk.

Before the holidays, the Histadrut submitted to the relevant ministries a list of demands entitled “Required measures given the safety crisis in the construction industry.” The document demands changes to safety and manpower regulations, wage increases and legislation. According to the Histadrut, the government has not responded to the demands. Many of the problems at construction sites and the possible solutions to them have been reported by Haaretz and are familiar to the government ministries and the Histadrut, but no significant steps have been taken to change the situation.

Thirty-one workers have been killed at building sites in Israel since the beginning of the year, tens of percentage points more than last year. According to the Labor Ministry’s official figures, the number of workers killed in accidents during the first half of 2018 was up 30 percent from the average for the first halves of the past five years. The rate of fatal construction accidents is more than double the average in the European Union.

The Histadrut wants more building inspectors hired at higher salaries. As Haaretz reported in 2015, about 20 inspectors at the Occupational Safety Administration are responsible for some 13,000 construction sites, meaning that many sites are never inspected. The safety agency has dozens of inspector positions it cannot fill because of the low salary. Katz and chief labor inspector Erez Maimon claim that the number of inspectors is now 30, but a recent ministry response to a High Court of Justice petition filed by Kav La’oved (Workers Hotline) revealed that only 18 inspectors are actually employed. To meet EU standards, some 360 inspectors are needed.

The Histadrut is also demanding that contractors be made to meet EU standards for their scaffolding. Standards for these were last updated 30 years ago and contractors are not obligated to meet them. Between 2011 and 2017, scaffolding was responsible for a quarter of the fatal accidents at building sites. Last year, substandard scaffolding was found at 70 percent of the building sites inspected.

The labor federation also wants a crackdown on unauthorized crane operators. A crane operator’s certificate is printed on paper and is easy to forge, and according to the Crane Operators Union one in five cranes is being operated by an unlicensed person. A Transportation Ministry plan submitted in 2013 to issue magnetic licenses to operators, similar to driver’s licenses, was never implemented, even though it would have cost only 50,000 shekels ($13,800).

The cranes themselves must also be upgraded. A year ago Haaretz reported that 30 percent of the cranes in use by builders are 40 to 50 years old and are in risky condition. No law in Israel states when cranes must be taken out of service, as opposed to Europe, where cranes are limited to between 15 to 25 years of use.

The Histadrut also wants the Contractors Registry regulations to be altered so a contractor’s safety history is considered before renewing his license. From 2010 to 2018, 2,729 contractors’ licenses were canceled, but none for safety reasons.