Editorial

Their Lives Are Worth Less

File photo: Workers at a building site in Jerusalem.
Emil Salman

On Thursday, two more names were added to the growing list of construction worker deaths in Israel. The first of these was Xia Zheng Long, 44, of China, who fell from a height of five stories while dismantling scaffolding at a job site in Petah Tikva. A Hebrew-language Facebook page that monitors industrial accidents in Israel published quotes by friends of Xia, who came to Israel a year ago. “Who will raise his children and support his family now? We all know that the level of safety in Israel is low,” wrote one friend.

Less than two hours later, a 31-year-old Moldovan man died after falling three floors at a building site in Bnei Brak.

The two names joined those of 14 other construction workers who died in Israel since the start of the year, for a total of 16. In addition, 15 people in other industries have died in workplace accidents so far this year. In 2018, the number of workplace accidents rose 34 percent from the previous year.

This deadly routine is the result of the Israeli government’s indifference to the lives of the people who work in the country, combined with building contractors’ and developers’ disregard for the law. The dozens of people who are killed and the hundreds who are injured each year share one salient characteristic: They are not Jewish. Apparently, the lives of foreign workers and Palestinians from Israel and the territories are worth less.

Last week’s accident in Bnei Brak is being investigated by the Israel Police’s Peles unit. Surprisingly it’s only the second fatal accident to be assigned to the unit, whose establishment was announced at the end of last year. This policy of apathy, scorn and failure to investigate on the part of all the relevant organizations has produced laughable punishments and a paucity of convictions. It adds to the long-running impotence of the Labor, Social Affairs and Social Services Ministry, the chief regulator in this area, and of the Construction and Housing Ministry’s Contractors’ Registrar. Despite having received dozens of citations for egregious safety violations, the registrar rarely revokes contractors’ operating licenses.

The agreement signed in November between the government and the Histadrut labor federation, which was aimed at increasing safety on construction sites, was insufficient and is not being fully enforced. It appears that the responsible parties are unperturbed by this. Despite promises to heighten enforcement and punishment, it seems that most of the articles in the agreement have not been implemented. The fact that the Labor Ministry’s Occupational Safety and Health Administration, which is responsible for implementing the agreement, has not had a director for more than six months is another example of the negligent attitude toward worker safety.

The new Knesset has an opportunity to take decisive action to reduce construction accidents through effective legislation and close supervision of the relevant authorities. Their actions and misconduct must be reviewed and a far-reaching shift in policy must be put into place.

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