Construction Workers in Israel Must Break Their Silence

In order to handle the phenomenon that causes the deaths of dozens of men each year and injures thousands, workers must unite and form a strong, well-run organization that will serve them as a platform and an address for their problems.

Nedal Antar at a Migdal HaEmek construction site, January 1 2016.
Gil Eliahu

About two months ago I went out to have a good time with my colleague and friend Imad Najar, 21, from Arabeh. After a few hours Imad informed me that he was going to sleep because “tomorrow I have to get up early for work.” The next day we woke up to stormy weather conditions that are unsuitable for construction work. I decided not to go to work that day, but Imad went. At around 10:30 A.M. I received the terrible news: Imad had died in a work accident at a construction site in Pardes Hannah. A wall collapsed on him and he died on the spot.

Since the accident his parents have been suffering such great pain and sadness that I can’t look them in the eye. Who will be called to account for Imad’s death? That’s the question I ask myself every time I see them, that disturbs me every time I remember my good friend.

As I write this I’m aware of the price I’m liable to pay: The persecution that is liable to be my lot, being ignored by those who are interested only in increasing profits and building towers of money, piles and piles of money. Those who ignore the safety rules and workers’ rights in an unsafe work environment. But still, I would rather lose my job than my life, and break the barrier of silence that has brought us construction workers to this point, to a place where accepting death “at a cheap price” has become the norm.

Imad joined dozens of other workers every year who have become numbers, and victims of carelessness and neglect by the authorities. There are many parties responsible for the phenomenon, most prominent among them the Economy Ministry and its meager number of inspectors. The ministry employs only 17 inspectors who are responsible for the safety of over 150,000 construction workers and 13,000 registered construction sites – an inconceivable 700 work sites per inspector. This figure only reflects the inability of government inspectors to do their job of preventing work accidents. During the past seven years in which I’ve have worked in construction, I have never seen an Economy Ministry inspector.

The workers in the construction industry, most of whom are in dire economic straits, with their livelihood based on the minimum wage alone, are extorted by the contractors – their work is hard, in inhumane conditions and in an area full of dangers. And if the difficult work conditions and the low wages are not sufficient to break the workers’ spirit, there is the greed of the construction firms and the contractors who make the situation even more difficult, also causing great pain and suffering to the families of the workers who are injured.

In order to handle the phenomenon that causes the deaths of dozens of men each year and injures thousands, there is a need for an official association to unite all the workers into a strong, well-run organization that will serve them as a platform and an address for their problems. That was the reason for the establishment of The Coalition against Work-Related Accidents in the Construction Sector, which gave me the strength and the platform to raise the subject of “safe work,” and that regularly keeps track of accidents that take place at the various work sites in Israel.

It is unconscionable for construction workers to continue operating under existing conditions, when at every moment they are in mortal danger, when those in charge of safety continue to turn a blind eye in order to maximize profits by reducing the costs of guarding the workers and their safety.

All those involved must mobilize – and first and foremost the workers themselves. We must cooperate and work for better and safer conditions, we must initiate and establish – or join – workers’ associations and political institutions to avoid being easy prey for employers, or an easy victim of neglect. The starting point for change is the workers themselves: people like me, who have decided to break the silence and have stopped being afraid.

In my line of work I’m the one in greatest danger, because for the most part I work on cranes and on scaffolding. Moreover, most of the work accidents and the innumerable cases of injury and death are caused by a fall from a height or from one of the scaffolds, for which there is no alternative in this industry. And I have no employment alternative other than continuing to work in this sector, in light of the sad economic situation of our society.

While I was sitting and writing this article, the carelessness and lack of safety at the construction and work sites in general claimed another victim. On Sunday afternoon, Hakmat Yihye Bathish of the Golan Heights died after a work tool fell on him. May his memory be blessed.