World News

Israeli unions threaten general strike over construction workers' safety

JERUSALEM (Reuters) - Israel’s main public sector union has threatened to shut down the country’s main airport, banks, stock exchange and all government offices from next Wednesday in protest over what it says is the state’s inaction over construction site deaths.

It said around 40 workers had died on building sites so far in 2018 and 200 others had been seriously injured.

Labour activists say 35 died in 2017 and Haaretz newspaper said the number of such deaths in previous years had averaged around 30.

The Histadrut labour federation has demanded the government adopt European construction standards, beef up safety measures and enforce a law on wearing safety harnesses.

“It is shocking and repulsive that in 2018 in Israel, nobody cares (about construction deaths). People wake up in the morning, bid farewell to their families, go to work and don’t return,” said Histadrut chief Avi Nissenkorn at a union conference on Thursday.

The federation wants the government to spend an additional 20 million shekels ($5.4 million) on hiring more safety inspectors.

“Can’t Israel allocate even 20 million shekels for safety? I declare that if there is no solution found by next Wednesday, we will call a general strike throughout the economy ... because there can be no compromise over people’s lives.”

Workers at many private companies including telecoms firms and train and bus companies are also expected to join the strike, the Histadrut said.

Three weeks ago, the federation, which represents hundreds of thousands of public sector workers, said it would prepare for a “complete shutdown” of the economy if no steps were taken.

Nissenkorn has written to Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu, Labour, Welfare and Social Services Minister Haim Katz, and Finance Minister Moshe Kahlon, calling on them to act in response to the labour dispute and to improve safety.

The prime minister’s office declined to comment.

Israel’s finance ministry said it places a high importance on improving work safety at construction sites and assists the Labour Ministry in implementing measures. It noted there were 100 inspectors responsible for enforcement on construction sites.

Israel recruits many construction workers from China and eastern Europe but the vast majority of construction casualties are among Israeli and Palestinian workers, activists say.

Reporting by Steven Scheer; editing by Ori Lewis and Andrew Roche