Thousands of Indian Workers Recruited for Jobs in Israel
Israel’s suspension of work permits for tens of thousands of Palestinians following the Hamas attacks on October 7 last year has opened up job opportunities for workers in countries like India. Thousands of young Indian men have been queuing up outside recruiting centers in the northern Indian states of Haryana and Uttar Pradesh in recent weeks, hoping to secure employment in Israel.
Starting next week some 10,000 Indian workers will head to Israel in batches of 700-1,000 per week, a source in the Israel Builders’ Association told the Press Trust of India. Sri Lanka, Mexico, Kenya, Malawi and Uzbekistan are among the other countries that the IBA is eyeing to hire workers to revive the construction sector.
According to reports, Israel plans to permanently replace its Palestinian workforce with foreign workers. Hence the massive recruitment drives overseas. Are Indian workers getting caught in the deadly politics and conflicts of the Middle East?
Israel has always suffered a shortage of labor. This shortage, especially in the construction sector, has become acute after October 7 with the Israeli suspension of Palestinian work permits, and with thousands of foreign workers leaving the country amid security concerns. Several construction projects have been stalled.
Plans to bring in large numbers of Indian workers to Israel predate the October 7 attacks. During Prime Minister Narendra Modi’s visit to Israel in May 2023, the two governments signed an agreement providing for 42,000 openings for Indian nationals in Israel’s construction and nursing fields.
There are an estimated 18,000 Indians already in Israel, either studying there or working as caregivers, diamond traders and IT professionals. Around 1,309 Indian citizens returned home after the October 7 attacks.
In December, following a phone conversation with Modi, Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu said they had “discussed advancing the arrival of foreign workers from India to the State of Israel.” In early January, a 15-member Israeli team arrived in India, and some 5,600 skilled workers were reportedly hired from Uttar Pradesh and Haryana. Five more states — Mizoram, Telangana, Rajasthan, Bihar, and Himachal Pradesh – have expressed interest in participating in the recruitment drives.
The number of Indian workers in Israel is poised to rise sharply. Those seeking recruitment include masons, painters, electricians, plumbers and some farmers.
India’s GDP is expected to grow to $5 trillion in the next three years and touch $7 trillion by 2030, the foreign ministry claimed on January 29. However, life is extremely difficult for most Indians.
The Centre for Monitoring Indian Economy said in December 2023 that India’s unemployment rate was 8.3 percent. Joblessness among those in the 20 to 24-year age group is 44 percent and has been growing.
Unemployment, inflation and low wages at home are driving young Indian men to desperate measures to earn a living. They are willing to work even in war zones to provide for their families. This explains the long lines outside recruitment centers.
A 26-year-old carpenter from Jind in Haryana who has been selected is optimistic. The jobs in Israel are offering salaries that are five times what he will earn in India, he told The Diplomat.
He had worked in Qatar previously but since returning home during the pandemic, he hasn’t found a “steady job.” He is “keen to work in Israel,” he says, adding that he knows of the “dangerous situation” in Israel but that doesn’t “bother” him.
“I need a job. I need to put food on plates at home. There are medical bills to pay and unpaid debts too,” he told The Diplomat in a phone conversation from Jind.
The Modi government is working to build India as a global hub for providing skilled and semi-skilled workers to other nations. This is seen as a way to address unemployment at home as well as earn foreign exchange. To this end, it has been putting in place mobility agreements with other governments. The pact with Israel in May was part of that strategy.
However, labor activists are pointing out that exporting workers to a conflict zone will endanger their lives. They are calling on the government to include Israel in the “Emigration Clearance Required” (ECR) list to protect the workers’ rights.
However, the Modi government has ruled this out, saying that Israel being an OECD member country “provides for protection of labour rights.” It says that the mobility agreements put in place frameworks to “ensure that our people are treated fairly, their rights are protected, and they are not discriminated against.”
Trade unions are up in arms. According to a joint statement issued by trade unions with diverse political affiliations, “Nothing could be more immoral and disastrous for India than the said ‘export’ of workers to Israel….That India is even considering ‘exporting’ workers shows the manner in which it has dehumanized and commodified Indian workers.” Sending workers to Israel “will amount to complicity on India’s part with Israel’s ongoing genocidal war against Palestinians and will naturally have adverse implications for Indian workers in the entire region. “
“Let’s resolve that we will not work to replace Palestinian workers in Israel!” it added.
The recruitment of Indian workers in Israel has serious foreign policy implications as well.
For decades, India took pride in being a champion of the Palestinian national cause. However, in recent decades and especially after Modi became prime minister in 2014, India has moved ever closer to the Israelis, upsetting the Palestinians. Indeed, on October 7, within hours of the Hamas attacks, Modi, who is known to be close to Netanyahu, rushed to express “solidarity with Israel.”
India has since pulled back from Modi’s rather excessive embrace of Israel. With Israel unleashing a brutal war on Gaza, which has included aerial bombing of hospitals, India has voted in favor of an “immediate ceasefire” and reiterated support for a “two-state solution.” However, this is unlikely to have allayed Palestinian concerns over India’s pro-Israeli tilt.
In the circumstances, Israel’s hiring of tens of thousands of Indian workers will not be received well by the Palestinians or the Arab world. It will be seen as aimed at shoring up Israel’s economy and economic capacity to wage war on Gaza.
The Indian workers will be perceived as taking away Palestinian jobs. India will be seen as facilitating Israel’s economic marginalization and exclusion of the Palestinian people. This will make the Indian workers vulnerable to attacks by Palestinians.
Additionally, when Indian workers apply for Israeli visas, their passports will be stamped by the Israeli government. That could hurt their employment prospects in the fiercely competitive job markets in several other Arab countries.
The Indian workers are likely to get entangled in the deadly Middle East war.