The Deaths of Construction Workers Touch on Israeli Society’s Ills

Over last five years the number of construction workers who have fallen to their deaths reached 184 – much larger than number of Israelis killed in terror attacks or wars.

A laborer at a construction site in Ashkelon.
A laborer at a construction site in Ashkelon. Ilan Assayag

Last month, five construction workers were killed in a single week when they fell from heights. These incidents aroused very little interest: Their pictures didn’t appear in the papers, usually their names weren’t published either, and certainly their relatives weren’t interviewed by any media outlet. Nor was anyone interested when Yunes al-Harush, 30, from the West Bank town of Yatta, fell 20 meters to his death at a building site in Givat Olga on Monday. He remained transparent, and it’s almost certain that no one will be brought to account for his unnecessary death.

The Knesset Labor, Welfare and Health Committee discussed the intolerable deaths of construction workers on Monday. At the hearing, the Knesset research center submitted (another) harsh report on the situation in this industry. The report, written at the request of MK Ilan Gilon (Meretz), shows that over the last five years the number of construction workers who have fallen to their deaths – 184 – is much larger than the number of Israelis killed in terror attacks or wars.

This slaughter touches on several of Israeli society’s ills: contempt for the deaths of people who build the country, because almost all of them are Arabs and labor migrants rather than Jews; the poor situation of those responsible for regulating building sites, who are trying with difficulty to put out fires while overseeing 12,000 building sites with a workforce of 17 poorly paid inspectors and a fleet of five vehicles, and without even a full-time economy minister (due to the dispute over the natural gas deal); and avarice – even though huge amounts of money flow through the real-estate market, many construction workers work with neither harness nor helmet, striding atop shaky scaffoldings to their possible deaths.

The construction industry is completely lawless. When a construction worker is killed as a result of negligence, the chance that anyone will pay a price for it is near zero. Only 11 indictments have been filed over those 184 deaths, and all ended in plea bargains, with sentences of a few months of community service and a few thousand shekels in fines. That’s a minuscule price for the life of a man who was only trying to support his family or himself. Even though a trip to the scaffoldings and building sites would enable every judge and Knesset member to learn about the neglect and the death traps for himself, in recent decades not one contractor has ever paid for a worker’s death with prison time.

Over the past few months, there has been an awakening of sorts over this issue. A coalition for fighting construction accidents was established, a discussion was held in the Knesset Labor Committee and some media outlets have begun covering the topic. But none of this is enough. Thanks to inspection and enforcement, the chance of a construction worker falling to his death in Britain is seven times less than it is in Israel. The time has come for Israel’s government, too, which is interested in building quickly and cheaply to solve the housing crisis, to understand that the deaths of 30 construction workers a year is not a decree of fate.