Israel’s Top Trade Union Provides Safety Training During the COVID Crisis for Every Palestinian Construction Worker
By David E. Kaplan
Something “constructive” has emerged from the COVID-19 pandemic in Israel – an innovative programme to save Palestinian lives; not from disease but from preventable accidents in Israel’s bustling construction industry.
In Israel’s entire workforce, construction workers are in the greatest danger, and for decades have suffered the highest rates of fatal workplace accidents – 6.6 times more than that of the average worker in Israel.
Like in most societies, the victims of these fatal workplace accidents are disproportionately the most vulnerable members of society and in Israel it is Israeli Arabs, Palestinians and other foreign workers consistently over-represented in the number of construction-site fatalities and injuries.
A breakdown shows that the highest incidence of fatal workplace accidents from 2017 to 2019 were caused by falls from heights, followed in descending order of falling objects, vehicular accidents, collapsing walls and scaffolding, electrocution, explosions and other.
Yes, society demands expansion and rapid development, but humanity no less morally requires that there is a limit at what price and every effort should be made to safeguard work environments.
To this end, over the past few months, a construction site in the Beit Zafafa neighbourhood in Jerusalem was rented by Israel’s largest trade union – the Histadrut – and converted into a “hands-on classroom” for the safety training of Palestinians in the construction industry. Already more than 500 Palestinian construction workers have participated in the training course at the “Safety Headquarters” with the primary aim “to prevent the next casualty.”
The Histadrut or the General Organization of Workers in Israel was established in 1920 in Mandatory Palestine and soon emerged as one of the most powerful institutions in the Yishuv (the body of Jewish residents in the region prior to the establishment of the State of Israel in 1948).
In extending their services to the wellbeing of non-Israeli workers in Israel, the Histadrut proudly subscribes to the motto:
“Unionised labour recognizes no borders”
The one-day training sessions were planned and implemented by the Histadrut in partnership with the Israel Builders Association, who utilised the prolonged stay of Palestinian workers in Israel due to the COVID-19 pandemic, to carry out the safety workshops. The morning of the training, workers were transported from their places of accommodation across Israel to the on-site “classroom”. Upon arrival, they would register at the reception station, where after the workers were divided into small groups that underwent the training, each one separately, in accordance with the guidelines of the Ministry of Health and the restrictions of the Corona virus.
Work like a Dream
Eyal Ben Reuven, Chairman of the Safety Headquarters, explained that “The training is both theoretical and practical and is based on scenarios of real accidents in the industry.” The training sessions, said Reuven, “dealt with scaffolding, ladders, dangerous mechanical tools, electricity and preventing objects from falling.”
With the thousands of Palestinians working in Israel’s construction industry, the programme has a long way to go, but it’s a start – “a constructive start.”
“My dream is that only workers who graduate safety training will be able to work on construction sites,” says Ben Reuven. “But for that to happen, the government needs to help us.”
According to Reuven, the course costs approximately NIS 450 per worker with current funding being provided by the Fund for the Encouragement of the Construction Industry. With the government showing little interest in supporting the initiative at present, “we are trying to fund-raise to continue the course,” says Reuven.
The success of the programme depends on the support of the constructive industry, which according to the Deputy Director General of the Israel Builders Association, Itzik Gurvich, has come to the table with construction companies “agreeing to pay their workers a full days wages to participate in the training.” The result has been that “Both employers and the workers have been satisfied with the course, and we’re hoping to expand the pilot.”
Ahmed Ghanaim, who heads Al Ola College, a vocational training college in the Western Galilee; and whose instructors are responsible for the training itself, explains that even veteran Palestinian workers “who have been working in Israel for decades and are experienced in their field, don’t know Israeli labour and safety laws. This information doesn’t really exist in the Palestinian Authority and also the employers don’t always give workers all necessary knowledge. Once workers have this knowledge, they’ll know what to ask for from management in order to return home safe and sound.”
After a most instructive hands-on session about scaffolding and ladders, the workers gathered in a circle to discuss the regulations as it applies in practice. One concerned worker remarks to the instructor:
“But out there on the site, it doesn’t actually happen like that!”
The instructor replies:
“Listen, at the end of the day there’s a hierarchy of responsibility. You have to speak to your foreman, and he needs to report to the contractor.”
“And what if the employer tells me to break those rules?” asks the employee.
“Contact the Histadrut,” the instructor replies. “Remember that we’re talking about your life, don’t agree to work in dangerous conditions.”
Avital Shapira, Director of International Relations of the Histadrut, addressed the Palestinian workers in fluent Arabic. Shapira’s fluency in Arabic stems from her stay in Egypt where she was the first Israeli student to study at the American University of Cairo, back in 1994.
“This is a great opportunity to show that the Histadrut is the home for all workers, regardless of origin, religion or gender,” Shapira told Davar, the Histadrut’s online news outlet.
“This is also an opportunity to use this platform to convey to Palestinian workers the message that the Histadrut sees them as a bridge to peace. I think the presence of so many Palestinian workers in the Israeli labour market is a platform for cooperation and coexistence.” The presence of these Palestinian workers, according to Shapira, also strengthens the relationship with the Building and Wood Workers’ International organization (BW).
“It is important to understand that in the construction industry there is no difference between a Palestinian, Israeli, or migrant worker,” adds Tal Burshtein, Vice Chairman of the Construction, Related Industries and Wood Workers’ Union. “Everyone is covered by the same collective bargaining agreement and is entitled to the same rights.”
Most of the Palestinians who came to the safety training chose to become members of the Histadrut, a process that began in recent years.
And for good reason!
Think of the abhorrent conditions foreign workers are treated in countries where they have found employment, notably in the Middle East and Africa. Too frequently they are exploited, with few legal rights to protect themselves.
In Israel, on the other hand, the Histadrut, will aid Palestinian foreign workers who have been fired, help them receive their vacation and sick days, and even represents them against the National Insurance Institution in events of workplace accidents. “First and foremost, the Histadrut is a sympathetic ear – we want to help.” During the COVID-19 crisis, the Histadrut distributed tens of thousands of masks and gloves and more than 2,000 liters of hand sanitizer to Palestinian workers.
“Meeting with them has shown us that they lack a lot of knowledge about their rights,” said Burshtein. “Since we’ve been distributing pamphlets on workers’ rights and signing them up to the Histadrut, we’ve been getting many more inquiries from Palestinian workers to our information service center, asking for help with problems at work. The workers who’ve gotten the pamphlets in Arabic also serve as ambassadors who disseminate this knowledge to additional workers.”
Peter Lerner, Director General of the Histadrut’s International Relations Division, is totally upbeat about the joint venture safety training programme for Palestinian workers. “The pilot was an initiative,” he told Lay of the Land, “that we hope will become the new standard for saving the lives of workers in the construction sector. I believe that it is a joint obligation to combine efforts and produce a safer working environment for the workers, empowering them and sharing knowledge about safety in the workplace and workers’ rights.”
Lerner asserts that this project is part of the Histadrut’s “expanded activities with Palestinian workers” adding that while “designed to ensure the health and welfare of Palestinian workers, they also promote co-existence.”
In Israel’s ever-expanding ‘urban landscape’, the building of new inspiring edifices is welcome. No less welcome in the country’s frenetic ‘social landscape’ is the building of improved relations between people!
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