Union Declares General Strike Next Week Over Worker Safety Issues

Histadrut Chairman Avi Nissenkorn. (Yonatan Sindel/Flash90 )

Following through on its threats, the Histadrut Labor Union announced Thursday that there will be a general strike in Israel beginning next Wednesday. Histadrut head Avi Nissenkorn made the announcement at a meeting of hundreds of activists at Histadrut headquarters in Tel Aviv.

Worker safety, especially at construction sites, is the central theme of the strike. Speaking Thursday, Nissenkorn said that the issue went beyond the death of dozens construction workers. “The government just doesn’t care about worker safety,” he told activists. “Forty people have been killed in unnecessary accidents, and over 200 have been badly injured. Construction workers die, bus drivers get hit, and nurses are attacked because people have no respect for each other. One more death, one more injury, and you look at the government and employers and wonder with amazement how they don’t care. The government and employers are responsible for workers – for their salaries, health care and welfare. And safety. If that was something complicated, we would understand the lack of it – but is safety complicated?”

The Histadrut several weeks ago declared an official “work dispute” that includes all unionized workers in the Israeli economy. According to Israeli labor laws, a work dispute is declared in advance of a strike. The strike, said Nissenkorn, will “be a difficult one,” encompassing all public sector workers, and many private sector workers.

Meanwhile, officials were working to try and prevent the strike. Labor and Welfare Minister Chaim Katz is set to tighten regulations on scaffolding used at construction sites, his office announced Wednesday. The new regulations will follow European guidelines, with higher barriers and stronger measures to keep scaffolding in place. The Labor and Welfare Ministry will work with other Ministries on legislation to require contractors and building companies to adopt the new standards, with penalties to be built into the law for those who fail to update their scaffolding.

Those penalties could include fines, if inspectors catch contractors failing to uphold the standards – or criminal charges, if a construction worker falls to his death off scaffolding. That has happened over 30 times this year, and it is the reason for a work dispute that was declared several weeks ago by the Histadrut labor union, which has threatened to go on strike and shut down the economy unless the government does something to improve safety conditions at workplaces, especially construction sites. Adoption of the European standards on scaffolding is a central demand of the union.

The rules he is developing, Katz said in a statement, “are the best response to the need to improve the safety of scaffolding, and encompasses the material scaffolding is made of, how it is constructed and how it is used, taking into account the stress it is expected to sustain.”

At the same time, the Contractors Association declared Wednesday that next week will be “Construction Worker Safety Week,” in which contractors and construction firms will hold talks and activities for workers aimed at instilling safer work practices. The activities, said the group, will “increase the solidarity between workers and employers to expand the war against work accidents, and greater care to ensure safety at construction sites.”

“Something must be done to reduce the numbers of dead and injured among workers,” Nissenkorn said in a statement. “This cannot continue. This is a national problem and we must take immediate steps to end the dangers to workers on the job and restore safety standards. Our conception of the value of human life is at odds with the lackadaisical attitude we have about worker safety. The numbers are unacceptable, and more and more workers are victims of situations where their deaths could have been prevented. Unfortunately, the state continues to act as if it doesn’t care,” he added.