“The dream of peace between our two peoples starts with cooperation to improve the lives of workers,” said Arnon Bar David, chairman of the Histadrut, the Israeli Federation of Labor Unions, at an unprecedented meeting with the Palestinian Committee for Interaction with Israeli Society last week. The meeting, which dealt with coordinated measures to increase workplace safety in the construction industry, was held in Tel Aviv and was organized by the Histadrut’s international relations department, with the goal of strengthening the connection between the Israeli and Palestinian labor unions.

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The collaboration between the two unions comes against the backdrop of rising numbers of work-related deaths in Israel's construction industry. The issue of construction workers' safety, many of who are Palestinians working in Israel, has been a major focus of trade union activity in recent years. Over the course of 2019, the Histadrut has made efforts to reduce accidents among Palestinian construction workers who are hired in Israel, as well as making information regarding occupational safety and workers’ rights more accessible to them.

Histadrut unionization campaign with Palestinian construction workers at border crossing (Photograph: Tal Burstein

According to the Histadrut, there are currently some 80,000 Palestinians working legally in Israel, with tens of thousands more working without permits, mostly in the construction and services industries. In the meeting, Bar David offered an overview of activities conducted by the Histadrut’s fieldworkers, which included operating at checkpoint crossings into Israel, creating a special Arabic-language info booklet about workers’ rights, expanding the activities of the Histadrut’s “workers’ hotline” in Arabic, and adding Arabic speakers to the Histadrut’s legal team. Bar David also mentioned the Histadrut’s future plans for vocational training by opening up new training centers specifically for Palestinian workers who are hired in Israel, which will focus on safety in the workplace.

Ziad Darwish, head of the Palestinian committee, told Davar that the Palestinian delegation’s goal was to establish relations with the Histadrut, and went on to summarize the meeting positively, saying that he had "met people who generally want to help and to find solutions together."

“We wholeheartedly support anything which helps Palestinian workers,” said Darwish, expressing appreciation for the Histadrut’s work on behalf of Palestinian workers and for making the Histadrut’s services accessible to Palestinians who enter Israel on work visas.

Ofir Alkalai, the Histadrut’s executive director, told Davar that the Histadrut is making major efforts to improve its services for Palestinian workers and to increase safety in the construction industry. Over the past few months, according to Alkalai, Histadrut staffers have visited hundreds of work sites around Israel, as well as going to checkpoints into Israel to hand out informational materials about workers’ rights and safety.

Workplace safety violations continually repeated at construction site in Israel’s Center (Photograph: Davar).

After meeting with the Palestinian delegation, Alkalai said that “Without a doubt, if we can manage to cooperate with the Palestinian Authority – the Palestinian Ministry of Labor and the Palestinian General Federation of Trade Unions, then it’s possible to make a real improvement in working conditions and in the safety standards of construction sites.” Alkalai added that he’s feeling “optimistic” about the possibility of collaboration.

Lawyer Ophir Alkalai, appointed Histadrut executive director (Photograph: Oren Cohen, Histadrut press office)

Peter Lerner, the head of the international relations department at the Histadrut, told Davar that “This meeting is part of a long line of other meetings we’ve conducted with Palestinian trade unions and with international labor organizations. It’s part of our expanded activities with Palestinian workers over the course of 2019.” Lerner added that these activities are “designed first and foremost to ensure the health and welfare of Palestinian workers, but to also promote co-existence.”