Israel's Construction Workers' Lives Matter, Too

Five workers have died on Israeli construction sites already this year. Would people care more if they were Jewish, rather than Arabs or migrant workers?

A construction worker step precariously on a roof while working on a new neighborhood in Tiberias, December 2015.
Gil Eliahu

The death of Abu Ras Kasem on Wednesday didn’t dominate the evening news, and he wasn’t the subject of emotional Facebook eulogies. Kasem, 34, from the village of Ilut, fell into an elevator shaft while working on the renovation of Haifa’s Horev Center mall. He was yet another construction worker to be killed at work, the fifth this year. His death indicates that another bloody year lies in store for construction workers.

A day after Kasem’s death, work resumed at the site as though nothing had happened.

Last week’s stormy weather should have made any responsible contractor halt work and not abandon his workers on the scaffolding – especially since another construction worker, Ashraf Taha, was killed 10 days earlier due to strong winds.

But the developers are pushing to hit deadlines at any cost, and construction workers, including crane operators, report that they are threatened with dismissal unless they continue working – contrary to the Economy Ministry’s instructions. The ministry currently has no minister at its helm, and a meager number of inspectors in charge of such a huge area of responsibility cannot do much about the situation. Aside from the fatalities, Israel is paying for the tiny saving in inspectors’ wages with the added loss of construction workers who are injured or disabled for life.

Real estate may as well be the Wild West as far as employment and safety are concerned. No contractor or safety inspector has ever spent a single day in jail because of a worker falling to his death. At best, the fines for loss of life are a few thousand shekels – so when it comes to the profit line, real estate developers may consider it worthwhile to gamble with their workers’ lives.

More than 30 construction workers, on average, are killed in Israel every year. Most of them are Arabs, but some are foreign workers and Jews. This isn’t an act of fate – the odds on a construction worker dying at work in Israel are seven times higher than in Britain. It’s hard to believe the Israeli public would accept this so calmly if it knew 300 Jews were going to die for nothing in the next 10 years.

A bill sponsored by MKs Shelly Yacimovich and Orli Levi-Abekasis – both daughters of construction workers – calls to place memorial plaques in buildings for the workers who died while constructing them. This is one bright spot and at least tries to raise awareness about the fate of the construction workers, which is so easily repressed.

However, this is merely symbolic legislation. The state must force employers to report every type of accident and increase the safety laws’ enforcement on construction sites by beefing up the inspectors’ numbers and equipping them with the right tools. The state must also toughen the penalty against employers who fail to uphold the safety laws, especially when workers are injured and killed.