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‘We do not have many options’: unease over Israel’s recruitment of Indian labourers

<span>Cranes under the sunset in Tel Aviv amid the ongoing conflict between Israel and Hamas.</span><span>Photograph: Dylan Martinez/Reuters</span>
Cranes under the sunset in Tel Aviv amid the ongoing conflict between Israel and Hamas.Photograph: Dylan Martinez/Reuters

Construction noise is a near-constant across Israel; more high-rises join Tel Aviv’s tech boom skyline every year, and new housing is badly needed all over the country, as well as in Israeli settlements in the occupied West Bank. Since the 7 October Hamas attack that sparked a new war in the Gaza Strip, however, building work has come to an almost complete halt.

The industry relied on approximately 80,000 Palestinian workers, who are now barred from entering Israeli territory. As a result, half-finished residential blocks are everywhere, yellow tower cranes waiting motionlessly overhead. In the West Bank, poverty rates have soared.

The economic impact for Israel could also be severe. The finance ministry has estimated the expulsion of Palestinian construction workers is costing 3bn shekels (£656m) a month, and could eventually lead to a loss of 3% of GDP because the building and housing industries owe 400bn shekels in loans.

But while Israel’s divided government stalls on deciding whether to bring Palestinian workers back, an unexpected solution has been found as the fallout from the conflict ripples around the world: recruiting labourers from India.

“Right now I earn around 15,000 rupees (£150) a month,” said Rajat Kumar, 27, from the north Indian state of Haryana. Though he has a bachelor’s degree, for six years he had been unable to get any other job except construction, earning a salary he described as “peanuts”.

The prospect of travelling abroad to a country engulfed in conflict was a small price to pay for regular, well-paid work, said Kumar, who got his first passport in order to apply for a job as a plasterer in Israel.

The job he has applied for in Israel would pay 138,000 rupees a month, with accommodation provided, which he saw as a small fortune. “When I compare it with what I earn here, I can’t think of anything but the better life I and my family will have,” he said.

A bilateral labour agreement was signed between Israel and New Delhi last May, before the war in Gaza broke out, but has since become a priority for both countries. Israeli transportation minister, Miri Regev, said during a visit to India earlier this month that Israel would be “lessening its dependence on Palestinian workers” by replacing them with skilled foreign workers.

With India suffering a chronic jobs shortage – overall unemployment sits about 8% and youth unemployment is almost at 25% – hunger for work in Israel has been huge, despite concerns over travelling to a conflict zone.

Young men have turned out to recruitment drives across northern India in droves. On one occasion in Uttar Pradesh, more than 15,000 people arrived to hand in applications to work as plumbers, masons, electricians, carpenters and plasterers on Israeli construction sites. Some who travelled hundreds of miles, and waited for upwards of eight hours, were turned away.

Kunal Silku, director of training and employment for the Uttar Pradesh government, said the state had received a direct request from Israeli authorities who wanted to recruit 10,000 labourers.

Silku said the Israelis had specified they were primarily looking for steelworkers, tilers, plasterers and carpenters. “ Seven thousand and one hundred workers went through the screening and 500 have been selected so far,” he said. “We are hoping to conduct more recruitment drives in the future.”

Relations between Israel and India were not always so friendly; the two countries only formally established relations in 1992. But today, India is a major Israeli arms recipient, and the Hindu nationalist government in power since 2014 sees the Jewish state as an ideological ally.

According to Israeli daily Haaretz, Indian candidates seeking work in Israel were in many cases made aware that the jobs were not available to Muslims. The Israeli foreign ministry did not immediately respond to a request for comment on the allegation.

“We would be more than happy to have the Palestinians back, but it’s not our decision to make, and the situation is critical. Until that action is taken we need foreign workers,” said Shay Pauzner, the deputy director general and spokesperson for the Israel Builders Association trade union.

About 60,000 foreigners are expected to enter the Israeli construction industry over the next few months, he said. The majority will be from India, but Israel also has similar labour agreements with Sri Lanka and Uzbekistan, and has recruited from China, Moldova and Ukraine in the past.

The recruitment drive has been met with some resistance by several Indian trade bodies. In a statement released in November, 10 trade unions said that any attempt by the government to “export” Indian workers would show “the manner in which it has dehumanised and commodified Indian workers”. The statement added: “Such a step will amount to complicity on India’s part with Israel’s ongoing genocidal war against Palestinians.”

This month, India’s transport workers union also waded into the debate, stating that its thousands of workers would refuse to load or unload weapons bound for Israel “in solidarity with Palestine”.

While better than standards in the Gulf, where the majority of Indian construction labourers work, Israel’s building industry has a poor safety record by western standards. One rights group recently reported the number of people killed on Israeli construction sites is 2.5 times greater than that of the EU for every 100,000 workers.

Nonetheless, recruitment among India’s largely informal work sector appears to have been largely unaffected by the union’s protests or safety concerns, and as of last week, the first Indian workers have begun arriving. Pauzner estimated that 400 people had already come to Israel after passing skills and qualifications checks.

Vikas Dhanda, 33, from Panipat in Haryana, said he had applied for a job as a plumber in Israel. Doing the same work in India earned him just 17,000 rupees (£170) a month, which he struggles to survive on.

After his wife died of a heart attack five years ago, he became the sole parent to his daughter and said he was determined to get the job to pay for her education. Any risks of going to Israel did not bother him, Dhanda added.

“I want to provide her with a good life and education,” he said. “What does it matter what kind of situation we will be sent to when the situation here is already terrible. We do not have many options. This job will pay 10 times more money and that puts every other concern aside.”