Editorial

Israel's Invisible Workers

The site in Kiryat Biyalik where a worker died this week, October 5, 2019.
Magen David Adom

Yet another worker was killed in Israel this week. An air-conditioning technician in his 50s died Sunday, after falling five stories while working at an apartment building in Kiryat Bialik. The Magen David Adom medic who was called to the scene said, “There was nothing we could do but declare him dead.”

It’s not only the ambulance service, but also the police and the Labor and Social Affairs Ministry that act as if all there is nothing they can do but declare the deaths of workers, as if it were a matter of divine decree and not the result of a systematic abdication of responsibility by everyone involved in the issue. No other explanation is possible for the horrifying fact that since the start of the year, 67 people have died in work accidents in Israel.

The public has grown accustomed to seeing workers’ deaths as routine. Just last week, one worker was killed and another seriously injured while building a sewage reservoir near Ashkelon. Two weeks ago, two workers were seriously injured when a crane fell in the parking lot of a shopping center in Ma’alot-Tarshiha.

What are their names? Where did they come from? Did they have families? The public doesn’t appear to be interested in any of this. In most cases, the victims aren’t Jews, but workers who are invisible to the lords of the land. This time, the death did not take place at a construction site, but contempt for worker safety has spread like the plague.

The utter indifference toward construction accidents displayed by former Labor, Social Affairs and Social Services Minister Haim Katz was a prime example of the dereliction of duty. Construction companies understood the spirit of their commander quite well and didn’t let the victims interfere with maximizing their profits. The combination of public apathy and the government’s blind eye created a capitalist Wild West that has allowed criminal developers to treat human life cheaply.

In May, Haaretz reported that government ministries have yet to implement most of the provisions of an agreement to improve workplace safety situation that was signed with the Histadrut labor federation after Israel’s main labor union umbrella organization threatened to call a general strike.

Last month, the Labor Ministry announced that it had shut down 51 building sites over safety issues, and that they would remain closed until the problems were corrected. This is a step in the right direction, but it must be backed up with comprehensive policy shifts. The number of safety inspectors must be increased, and contractors that fail to comply with safety regulations should lose their licenses. The police must investigate work accidents, and legislation must be passed to expand the criminal liability of senior executives of construction companies and contractors.

Contractors must be made to feel afraid. They must learn that failing to be punctilious about worker safety will leave them without an income, and that they’ll also be criminally liable in the event of an accident. As long as contractors fear no harm to either their wallets or their freedom, there is no reason to expect the situation to change.

The above article is Haaretz’s lead editorial, as published in the Hebrew and English newspapers in Israel.