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Israel's construction sector deadly for Arab workers

Lawyer Hadas Tagari is collecting and publishing data on the troubling number of deaths in Israel's construction sector, mainly among Arab laborers, to bring attention to the problem.

Six construction workers died last month in Israel, bringing the number of such fatalities to 23 so far this year. The number of fatalities in 2016 totaled 49, according to data compiled by attorney Hadas Tagari. Had Tagari not rallied to the cause, few in Israel would know about the extent of the country's workplace accident problem. Each case would have continued to merit at best a short item on the radio about a nameless worker killed on a construction site.

Few Israelis, if any, know that most workplace accidents occur in the construction sector and that most of those killed or injured are Israeli Arab citizens, Palestinians from the West Bank and Gaza, and a handful of migrant laborers from abroad. Almost two years ago, Tagari began collecting the names and identities of the dead, one by one, as well as the location of their fatal accidents. She documented the names of the construction companies involved and the reason for the accidents, whether negligence by employers or the systemic failure of all those tasked with supervising the construction sector and preventing workplace accidents.

“Most of those killed are Arab Israelis and Palestinians from the territories,” Tagari told Al-Monitor, adding that this is probably why no one had bothered to count them. According to the data she compiled for 2016, one-third of the dead were West Bank or Gaza Palestinians, one-third of them Arab Israelis and the remaining one-third almost equally divided between Jews and non-Jews, the majority of them immigrants from the former Soviet Union.

“One day, in November 2015, I read that three workers had been killed in three separate accidents after falling from heights. I knew that we wouldn’t find out anything more about who they were, where they were killed, how, what company was operating the site, and especially that no one would check,” Tagari said. “It’s clearly linked to the fact that they’re Arabs, but there’s also a whole system of powerful economic interests at play.”

Israel’s construction safety legislation is adequate, Tagari asserted, but the resources of the Ministry of Labor, Social Affairs and Social Services for monitoring workplace safety are meager, the police fail to investigate, and the state does not prosecute. This makes for a “comprehensive systemic failure,” Tagari said. Were it not for her activity, the construction fatalities would have remained anonymous.

Tagari began collating data, mostly based on announcements issued by the Magen David Adom medical emergency and disaster services, and then got journalists interested in the information she gathered. She also established a Facebook group, The Battle Against Construction Accidents, to enable others to also document accidents.

On Sept. 3, Tagari posted the following: “Four Muslims, and two Chinese, killed during the month of August on construction sites, will no longer celebrate with their families. Among them is Mohammed Amara, 16, whose young life was cut short on 17.8.2017 after the scaffolding on which he was banned by law from climbing due to his young age collapsed under his feet.” On the same day, two additional construction workers, Israeli Arabs, died.

Tagari, a human rights lawyer, spent a decade working at the Association of Civil Rights in Israel and is currently completing her Ph.D. thesis. Her legal training has helped in guiding Facebook group members in how to publish the names of companies involved in safety infractions at construction sites without risking libel suits. There is essentially no problem, she said, because most of the information is in the public domain, and the building sites are highly visible, as are negligence and shoddy safety practices.

The pressure that Tagari has helped bring to bear through rights organizations, such as Kav La’Oved (Workers’ Hotline) and Ma’an (a Palestinian workers’ advocacy group), has yielded results. Public interest in construction fatalities has grown. In August 2016, a legal amendment took effect mandating a work stoppage at any construction site where serious or fatal accidents occur. In addition, the government department tasked with overseeing workplace safety was transferred from the purview of the Ministry of Economy, where Tagari said it was out of place due to the economic focus of the office, to the Ministry of Labor, Social Affairs and Social Services.

In June 2016, the Occupational Safety Administration and the research department of the National Insurance Institute issued a comprehensive report on workplace accidents between 2011 and 2015. Its authors concede that construction work is the most hazardous occupation in Israel.

“The chances of a construction worker being killed is five times greater than that of an industrial laborer,” the report stated. The authors do not explain, however, whether the danger stems from the type of work involved or from lax enforcement of safety regulations due to most construction workers being Arabs. Furthermore, the report notes that given the nature of the work in the sectors where migrant labor and Palestinians are employed — mostly construction and agriculture, which are characterized by relatively high rates of injury — “There is likely underreporting of workplace accidents among the population of foreign workers and workers from the territories.”

“The Palestinian workers are the most vulnerable to extortion,” Tagari said, explaining that they are afraid to complain lest they lose their permit to work in Israel, which requires great effort to obtain. She underscores that all her data pertains to construction sites in Israel only, and not to construction work by Palestinians in the West Bank, which she described as a “no-man’s land.”

Tagari explained that Israeli safety laws do not apply in the West Bank, and Magen David Adom, the main source of her information, does not operate there as a rule. The Palestinian Authority also does not document the number of workers who are killed or injured in the Israeli settlements. “They conduct registration of Palestinian injuries and fatalities in work accidents within Israel,’’ Tagari said, “but the workers in the settlements are an unknown. They’re not counted and no one cares about their fate.”

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