Indian workers in Israel: In the line of fire?

Security worries and concern about wages cloud the government’s decision to allow Israel to recruit Indian construction workers

File photo of Indian workers being briefed in preparation for Israel
File photo of Indian workers being briefed in preparation for Israel

Sarosh Bana

The Indian government’s travel advisory issued on Friday, telling Indians to avoid travelling to Israel and Iran in view of the mounting tension and possibility of war, comes a week after the first lot of Indian workers left for Israel.

Indian trade unions had earlier protested the government-to-government agreement on both moral and ethical grounds, as well as on considerations of security and apprehension of discriminatory practices.

A prime concern was the wages to be paid. Palestinian construction workers in Israel were being paid Rs 33,210 per day (1,500 NIS or Israeli new shekel) but there is no clarity if Indian workers too will receive the same wages, since construction workers in India earn Rs 10,000-20,000 a month. Incidentally, 1 NIS is worth approximately Rs 23.

On 5 April, Israel’s Ambassador to India Naor Gilon announced the departure of the first batch of Indian construction workers for Israel, recruited as replacements for Palestinian workers barred from working in Israel following the 7 October attack by Hamas.

Gilon’s statement to the media that the first batch of over 60 workers had left for Israel was confirmed by India’s ministry of external affairs (MEA) spokesperson Randhir Jaiswal, who told newspersons, “As you are aware, these workers have gone to Israel as part of a government-to-government agreement that we have signed with the country.”  

A debate has been raging in Knesset, the Israeli parliament, about whether to import workers from foreign countries so as to lessen Israel’s dependence on Palestinian workers, or to employ Palestinian workers from Judea and Samaria to cover the present shortfall.

“The time has come for us not to depend on Palestinian workers,” said transportation minister Miri Regev, who had visited India and Sri Lanka in February. She told Knesset: “There are 100,000 workers in Sri Lanka and India who are ready to come to Israel. We need to stop the bureaucracy and bring them as quickly as possible. You can also lower the price of labour per day. There is no reason to pay a worker NIS 1,500 per day."

Many in India deemed the minister’s proposal to shortchange Indian and Sri Lankan workmen as racist and discriminatory.  

Clearly, the promise of far better wages and job prospects would motivate an Indian labourer to move to a war zone, in a more developed country where the cost of living is far higher. Some labourers were also quoted in the media as saying that Muslim workers were not being considered. It raised the uncomfortable question of whether the Indian government had agreed to such a discriminatory condition.

In November 2023, Voice of America quoted Israel Builders Association vice-president Haim Feiglin as saying that the Netanyahu government was considering his association’s request to allow between 50,000 and 100,000 Indian workers to help stabilise Israel’s construction sector. He explained, “We are at war, and the Palestinian workers, who make up about 25 per cent of our human resources in the sector, are not coming and are not permitted to work in Israel.”

The issue has raised a storm in India, with 10 central trade unions asserting that nothing could be more ‘immoral’ and ‘disastrous’ for India than ‘exporting’ workers to Israel. Pointing out that about 130,000 Palestinians were employed in the construction sector in Israel, the trade unions jointly stated, “Such a step 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.” They additionally called for a boycott of Israeli products by India and urged Indian workers to refuse to handle Israeli cargo.

Thousands of Palestinian workers from Gaza who were stranded in Israel with the sealing of the border crossings since the outbreak of hostilities have been deported back to the besieged territory. Each is a breadwinner for his family back in Gaza, and the International Labour Organisation forecasts Palestine's unemployment rate to rise to 45.5 per cent by June.

Noting that India and Israel have been deliberating on a bilateral framework in the construction and caregiver sectors, another MEA spokesperson Arindam Bagchi had said, “But on the larger issue, we have been working towards giving our citizens access to the global workplace.”

About 18,000 Indians already reside in Israel, primarily as health caregivers employed by Israeli elders, apart from diamond traders and IT professionals.

During his India visit in May last year, Israeli foreign minister Eli Cohen had signed the 'Framework Agreement on Facilitation of Temporary Employment of Workers in Specific Labor Market Sectors in Israel' to facilitate the employment of 42,000 Indian workers, 34,000 in the construction field and 8,000 in the nursing sector. The move was expected to ease Israel’s rising cost of living and aid thousands of families waiting for nursing care.

While the Narendra Modi government in India deems it a high achievement in “working towards giving our citizens access to the global workplace”, its 2020 data shows about 13.6 million Indians living overseas, about 9 million in West Asia — in the present context in Israel, the issue is more one of ethics than economics.

While the government hails the Indian diaspora as “India’s goodwill ambassadors”, sending workers to Israel will simply swell the ranks of migrant labourers from India, underscoring the abysmal failure in tackling growing joblessness back home that has reduced millions to poverty.

Moreover, sending labour from India to replace Palestinian workers at a time when they have lost their jobs and possibly their homes and family members, is akin to capitalising on their misfortune. 

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