Not Safe for Chinese: Israel's Poor Record on Construction Sites' Irks Beijing

Two Chinese workers were killed in construction accidents this year, prompting what some say are diplomatic tensions between the countries and tighter controls by Beijing

Chinese workers at a construction site in Israel
Tomer Applebaum

An agreement signed 18 months ago to bring some 20,000 Chinese construction workers to Israel is floundering amid Chinese concerns over safety, prompting Beijing to veto participation of its citizens in 36 building projects, TheMarker has learned.

Israel’s Foreign Ministry denies there is a problem. But sources said the issue has become a source of diplomatic tensions between the two countries and that an Israeli deputy ambassador in Beijing was summoned to the Chinese Ministry of Commerce over the issue, after a Chinese building worker was killed earlier this month.

A spokesman for the Foreign Ministry confirmed that China is concerned about worker safety, but said the meeting between the deputy ambassador and Chinese officials was a routine one, which addressed various issues regarding the bilateral agreement.

“Among other things, they spoke out the worker who was killed, but that wasn’t the main topic of the discussions,” the ministry said. Rather, it stressed that while the Chinese have vetoed construction projects, they have done so for safety reasons, not political ones.

“A clause in the bilateral agreement talks about worker safety at sites approved by the two sides. There is no territorial definition for building sites and from our point of view that’s what’s important. There are sites where the Chinese decided not to work out of safety concerns,” it said.

Desperately in need of construction workers, especially for residential building, Israel effectively agreed in 2017 to Beijing’s demand that Chinese workers not be assigned to projects in the West Bank or East Jerusalem. Officially China was concerned about worker safety, but Israel believed the Chinese didn’t want to be seen as helping build settlements.

Israel refused to countenance a boycott of the settlements, but the two countries got around the problem by agreeing that workers recruited under the agreement would only be assigned to projects mutually agreed upon by both sides.

To date, 10 of the projects vetoed by Beijing have been in the town of Rosh Ha’ayin. Another three have been in Tel Aviv and two in Ashkelon. The others are in single sites in towns across Israel. In Jerusalem, however, eight projects have been vetoed. The city is one where Chinese imposed stricter limits on granting approvals.

Israel has a poor record on safety at construction sites, which has become a source of controversy. Fifteen workers have been killed at sites in Israel this year.

A 2016 report prepared for the Israeli Economy and Industry Ministry and National Insurance Institute estimated that fatal accidents at Israeli building sites occurred at twice the rate as they did in the European Union. In the previous 15 years, some 500 constructions workers had been killed on the job, it said.

In its defense, the Labor and Welfare Ministry, which is responsible for enforcing safety rules, said it had shut 70 building sites since the start of the year due to serious violations. Since then they ministry has also bolstered its enforcement of rules through various means including boosting the number of safety inspectors from 18 to 30.

Nevertheless, two Chinese workers have been killed so far this year at Israeli building sites, including the one working on a project in Jerusalem May 7 that prompted what sources said was the Chinese summons. Two others died on the job in 2017.

Beijing regards the problem as so serious that it assigned four inspectors to travel between sites and monitor the situation.

“In the past, labor inspectors would come and drink coffee. Now after [two] workers were killed, they comes three times a week, check documents, hardhats and gloves,” said one building industry source, describing the tougher stance.

Meanwhile, a hotline for Chinese speakers operated by Israel’s Population and Immigration Authority has registered some 200 complaints from 174 workers about conditions since it was set up. They include issues like non-payment of salaries or social benefits and inappropriate tasks.

The problem of worker safety comes as the agreement itself has failed to live up to expectations. Under its terms, some 6,000 Chinese were due to work in Israel in the first phase, but Israeli Finance Ministry figures show that only 2,560 have arrived to date. Another 710 are due to arrive shortly, but that will add up to little more than half the projected number.

Moreover, approximately 3,200 workers who have been in Israel for some time and whose stay has been extended several times, are due to return to China soon.

The failure to import the full quota is due to a lack of demand for construction workers in Israel in the past year or so — and will require the government to pay Beijing $951,473 in compensation as a result.

“The real estate market in Israel is in deep freeze, courtesy of Finance Ministry policies, and when the market freezes, contractors don’t need workers – it’s called risk management – contractors won’t build homes,” said one industry executive, who asked not to be identified.

But he also blamed Chinese officials. “The Chinese themselves are very selective about the construction sites they are willing to work at. They are organized in the field by go-betweens who often make it difficult to work, so the demand at the moment isn’t strong,” he said.