Over the past few months, a construction site in the Beit Safafa neighborhood in Jerusalem was converted into a hands-on classroom. The Histadrut, the largest trade union in Israel, has rented the site, designed it to serve as a model site, and held there a one-day safety training. Around 500 Palestinian construction workers participated in the training course.

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The one day training session was hosted by the Histadrut and the Israel Builders Association, who utilized the prolonged stay of Palestinian workers in Israel due to the COVID-19 pandemic, to carry out the training days. The morning of the training, workers were shuttled to the site from their dormitories all over the country. Upon their arrival and registration at the reception station, 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.

Safety training graduates. (Photo: Avital Shapira)

The joint Safety Headquarters of the Histadrut and the Association participated in the planning of the workshops and the implementation of the project. "The training is both theoretical and practical and is based on scenarios of real accidents in the industry," explains Eyal Ben Reuven, Chairman of the Safety Headquarters. The training sessions dealt with scaffolding, ladders, dangerous mechanical tools, electricity and preventing objects from falling.”

"We are currently training approximately 500 out of the 60,000 Palestinian workers, and at the same time are holding a pilot program for 450 Israeli workers with Lavetach College in Rishon Lezion. 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. Currently funding is provided by the Fund for the Encouragement of the Construction Industry. "The government isn’t interested [in supporting the intiative], and we are trying to fund-raise to continue the course."

Itzik Gurvich, Deputy Director General of the Israel Builders Association, emphasized that organizing the day required the cooperation of employers, who agreed to pay workers a full days wages to participate in the training . "Both employers and the workers have been satisfied with the course, and we’re hoping to expand the pilot."

Ahmed Ghanaim heads Al Ola College, whose instructors are responsible for the training itself. According to Ghanaim, even veteran workers who have been working in Israel for decades and are experienced in their field, don't know Israeli labor and safety laws. "This information doesn't really exist in the Palestinian Authority and also the employers don't always give workers all necessary knowledg. Once workers have this knowledge, they’ll know what to ask for from management in order to return home safe and sound."

2,000 liters of hand sanitizer

After a hands-on lesson about scaffolding and ladders, workers gather in a circle to go over the regulations. One of the workers says to the instructor: “But out there on the site, it doesn’t actually happen like that.” “Listen, at the end of the day there’s a hierarchy of responsibility," the instructor replies. "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, during safety training in Beit Safafa (Photo: Nizzan Zvi Cohen)

Avital Shapira, Director of International Relations of the Histadrut, delivered a speech in fluent Arabic to the workers. "This is a great opportunity to show that the Histadrut is the home for all workers, regardless of origin, religion or gender," she explains to Davar.

"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 labor market is a platform for cooperation and coexistence." The presence of these workers, according to her, also strengthens the relationship with the Building and Wood Workers' International organization (BW).

Safety training in Beit Safafa (Photo: Nizzan Zvi Cohen)

"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 workers who came to the safety training chose to become members of the Histadrut. This is in the framework of a process that the Chairman of the Construction Workers' Union Yitzhak Moyal led approximately two years ago, for the Palestinian workers working in Israel to join the Histadrut.

According to Burshtein, the Histadrut offers assistance to workers who have been fired, helps 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. 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."