Gaza City, November 2014 (Al Risala.net) – In the northern governorate of Gaza, Mohammad Khalil, 20, collects rocks and takes them to the crushing machine. He works in hot and dusty conditions and does not wear plastic boots to protect him from possible occupational hazards in the construction and extraction industry.
Khalid (an alias) covers his head with a piece of cloth to ward off stones that fly around during the crushing process, again without wearing a safety gear.
Khalil’s hair has turned white from the dust. He and his four colleagues are ignorant about their right to occupational safety; wearing helmets, protection boots, gloves and masks to protect their respiratory system while working in this industry.
Abu Hussein, their employer does not want to discuss ways of ensuring their safety.
“It is their duty to protect themselves. In such difficult circumstances, I can barely provide them with salaries let alone other items”, he complains.
There are 35,000 industrial workers prone to occupational hazards because employers refuse to provide safety equipment, according to the Gaza Chamber of Industry. Only 6% of the registered 2,650 industrial establishments at the Ministry of Economy have renewed their licenses in 2014, ignoring the roles of other authorities.
Many employers get away with indifference to rights of their workers due to the conflicting roles of the responsible government agencies: the Ministries of Labour, Economy, Interior, Local Governance and the Civil Defence. One way of ensuring the safety of workers lies in unifying the licensing of industries and empowering institutions in charge of monitoring employer compliance with employee safety as put forward in a 2011 legislation that has not been enforced since.
But this is proving a distant dream, more so since the 2006 de facto separation between the West Bank and the Gaza Strip.
The injuries of workers employed in industrial, construction and extraction industries range from slight to medium and from dangerous to fatal injuries. Workers are often unable to take care of their survival needs, especially in old age, or when they lose a limb due to an occupational hazard.
Wisam Al Bawab, Director of the Injuries Department at the Ministry of Labour in Gaza has no accurate statistics on the industrial and construction sectors.
But at a chemical cleaning supplies company, four out of 10 workers, all aged between 18 and 25 years, suffer from shortness of breath. Khalid Mohammad has been suffering breathing difficulties and chest injuries. The Medical Commission at the Ministry of Health has been unable for the past year to determine whether his problem is a congenital disease or an occupational hazard. .
Most workers in Gaza claim that their injuries and illnesses are due to the lack of occupational safety measures such as masks, protective helmets and shoes, goggles etc… in addition to absence of proper ventilation. These complaints were documented by this reporter during the course of this investigation.
The Ministry of Labour and the Civil Defence say they are bound by law to inspect worksites to check for safety tools and precaution signs in case of fire break outs. Both parties, however, cite complications hindering their monitoring roles.
The ministry says the law does not give it authority to license these establishments in order to oversee safe worksites though it is authorized to inspect them.
The ministry has 8 full-time and 22 part-time inspectors, says Misbah Hourani, head of the Work Inspection and Safety Department at the Ministry of Labour. These are not enough to monitor violations carried out by industrial establishments, the main source for 70% of the total occupational injuries in Gaza.
Mohammad Seikali, from the Occupational Health and Safety Department at the Ministry of Labour, says his department carried out random inspections in June on 76 sites and found that 61 of them were in violation of safety rules.
Violations include lack of proper ventilation and occupational safety tools, workers’ negligence on the safety of machinery and lack of insulation for electricity wires.
Yet, this reporter found out that only four complaints were filed against the violating establishments.
“Based on that,” says Hourani “and in light of the current economic situation, the inspectors simply provide advice on correcting the conditions at the offending establishment”.
This constitutes a violation of Article 113 of the Labour Law demanding that “the work inspector shall report a violation and take the necessary measures which includes providing instruction or a verbal warning to eliminate the violation during a set period. If nothing happens, the inspector issues a written warning”.
Statistics from the Office for Work Inspection and Protection shows that the number of written warnings in 2013 stood at 26 and verbal warnings at 326.
Meanwhile, the Ministry of Labour received 1,093 complaints by workers against their employees in 2013. A total of 181 were worthy of being sent to the central medical committee to estimate their incapability level. However because most of those who complained did so two years after the injury, they did not receive compensation since the law does not cover compensation after two years. Only 67 injuries were pursued and received compensation.
Bawab, the official in charge of work injuries at the Labour Ministry, said that 30% to 40% of the workers who filed complaints retracted them after reaching “amicable agreements” with their employees.
Hence, the remaining 95 injuries should receive compensation from the almost 3.5 million Shekels ($1 million) set aside in the budget, but after their requests are reviewed by the Medical Commission and the courts.
Bawab says only a small number of these workers have received reduced amounts of compensation after reaching agreements with their employers. Of these are three injured workers – two of them cousins. They had to settle for less instead of waiting for the court ruling and the insurance companies to agree on the full compensation package as the process takes long time.
The Civil Defence Authority has hardly any means to carry out its required duties. The Gaza government provides the authority with a car and 120 litres of petrol a month for inspecting registered establishments scattered across the Gaza Strip’s total area of 365 km2.
Civil Defence records include 317 establishments – 12% of the 2,650 companies registered with the Ministry of Economy. Of those, 168 have renewed their licenses at the start of 2014. This excludes establishments operating away from the eyes of the ministry, the “Civil Defence” and the municipalities.
Wa’el Loulou, in charge of Safety and Security at the Civil Defence, says his authority came across 127 violations in 2013 by employers not adhering to the guidelines including the availability of manual and automatic fire extinguishers on site. The Civil Defence issues a verbal warning, and after a period of two weeks, it issues a notification with timeframe to provide the fire prevention equipment. If nothing happens, the Civil Defence takes the case to the court. In 2013, a total of 38 reports were sent to the prosecutor’s office.
This reporter was not able to obtain statistics on the number of work injuries in industrial establishments. However, reports from the Injuries Department at the Ministry of Labour show 48 injuries in the first half of 2014.
Loulou says local municipalities are stepping over the prerogatives of the Civil Defence as they issuing licenses without waiting for the latter to verify if establishments adhere to fire safety guidelines.
During field visits to more than 20 institutions out of 2,650 registered establishments at the Ministry of Economy (extraction, conversion industries and handicrafts), this reporter noticed that work owners are using worsening economic conditions as an excuse for not providing occupational safety gear. As for licensing, they all insisted that had the necessary documents from the municipality.
The owner of the factory where “Khalid” works says he does not have a license from the Ministries of Economy and Labour as well as the Civil Defence. His establishment has been licensed by the Gaza Municipality. Any establishment can be licensed by the Ministry of Local Governance if the owner receives approval from the Ministry of Economy and the Civil Defence. The municipalities then take care of the annual renewal of license.
However, the reality on the ground is different. Licenses are given out randomly by ministries and municipalities due to conflicting authorities. This is giving municipalities unprecedented authority to issue trade licenses in return for a fee of ranging between 500 to 1000 Shekels ($140 to $270) a year.
This also means that dangers facing Gaza workers are on the increase.
The dire economic situation and increasing unemployment (40 per cent of the labour force) and poverty, more so since Israel imposed the 2007 blockade on Gaza, has forced youths to seek employment in quarries and other highly-hazardous industries.
As part of this investigation, I went to a bakery operating out of the lower level of a residential building in Sheikh Radwan district, West of the Gaza City. Inside, workers take off much of their clothes to escape heat and lack of ventilation. Abu Mohammad, the employer, insists he has a license issued from the Gaza Municipality. He showed me a fire extinguisher.
But all 15 workers complained of the poor working conditions. One of them broke his leg two years ago after getting entangled with an electric wire while carrying a sack of flour on his shoulders. He did not ask for any compensation because he was afraid he would lose his job. “We are unable to change these harsh circumstances.”
A study on occupational heath and safety in conversion factories carried out by Palestinian researcher Omayma Al Mugani states that 79.2% of the industrial establishments in Gaza do not file special reports on work accidents and injures.
Kamal Mahfouz, Director-General of Work Inspection and Protection at the Ministry of Labour confirms that the ministry “held talks with parliament members in Gaza at the start of 2014 – prior to the creation of the national unity government in June 2014 – to include occupational and safety guidelines for a manual setting national standards for the categorization of work owners.
The suggestion includes having the Ministry join a central committee for buildings to ensure licensed establishments adhere to occupational safety guidelines set by the committee. However, the suggestion has generated no response so far.
This reporter made calculations showing that amounts saved on not purchasing occupational health and safety equipment are lower than the financial compensation employers have to pay their workers in case of injuries. Article 120 of the Palestinian Labour Law stipulates that any accident that causes a permanent disability requires the employer to pay a salary equivalent to 3,500 work days in compensation, or calculate 80% of the original salary for the remaining period until the injured worker reaches the age of 60.
According to article 2 of Parliament’s resolution No. 10/1999 no licenses should be issued for any industry in Palestine without getting a license from the Ministry of Economy.
The reality, however, shows a conflicting picture.
The Head of the Licensing Department at the Ministry of Economy Hani Al Assar says owners of industrial establishments ignore this directive and opt for getting licensed by the Gaza Municipality. He calls for a new law that unifies licensing procedures under the Ministry of Economy.
Al Assar says that the political division between the West Bank and the Gaza Strip is hampering efforts to unify licensing procedures.
The discrepancy in statistics available at different official departments highlights lack of government coordination.
Sakeek, director of the Department of Planning at the Ministry of Local Governance, says municipalities are violating the law and making revenue from licensing and renewal of licenses.
This reporter got hold of a letter sent by the Ministry of Local Governance to Deir Al Balah Municipality on June 15, 2014 asking them to make sure the owner of a carpentry workshop obtains a license from the ministry. In the case of non-compliance, the municipality closes down the workplace and orders the owner to find another place in compliance with rules. In the example of the carpentry workshop, the municipality ordered the workplace closed. But the owner never complied.
Saeed Nassar, Mayor of Deir Al Balah, denies that the ministry’s request was ignored. His employees shut down the workshop and terminated its license.
“We are not responsible for the fact that the work owner might have reopened his workshop. The executing body and not us, has to follow-up on this”. The mayor says the issuing of licenses require coordination amongst the following: the Environment Authority, the Ministries of Health and Labour as well as the Civil Defence.
The Gaza Municipality, the largest here, denies it issues licenses without coordinating with the Ministry of Economy and the Civil Defence.” He insists they have nothing to do with the Ministry of Labour.
Hamouda showed this reporter examples of two official correspondence with the Ministry of Economy in February asking for their opinion on issuing “licenses” for a carpentry workshop and a bakery. Until now, the ministry has not replied.
The Municipality says it has 70 inspectors who monitor establishments and issue verbal warnings in case of violations, followed by written warnings. But the ministry is not in charge of execution.
Sakeek explains that decision makers in his department had set up committees to discuss violations with mayors but to no avail.
Investigations by this reporter of tens of furniture factories and ironmongeries across Gaza showed they did not have fire extinguishers, water hoses or guidance signage for fire safety in line with the Civil Defence Law.
There he found that electric wires are not properly insulated. Workers are not provided with protective gear for the eyes, face and ears. First aid kits do not exist.
Hence, the injury of workers will continue.
The Palestinian government and employers should be responsible for the safety of these workers. Labourers demand the creation of laws ensuring their safety and set clear guidelines as to which of the various state institutions are responsible for what. But nothing will happen until all authorities work under one law.
This investigation was completed with support from Arab Reporters for Investigative Journalism (ARIJ)