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Indian construction workers reject labour export deal to Israel

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Picture: Wikimedia Commons – Construction workers. The Construction Workers Federation of India has denounced government recruitment drives to send Indians to work in Israel’s construction sector, and have expressed their support for Palestinians under siege in Gaza and other parts of Palestine. The Zionist state is facing labour shortages after revoking the permits given to Palestinian workers.

By Tanupriya Singh

Over the past few weeks, at least two states in India, governed by the ruling Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP), have issued notices for the recruitment of construction workers to be sent to Israel.

Reports emerged towards the end of last year that Israel was seeking to hire up to 100,000 workers from India to replace Palestinian workers in its construction sector. After the Al-Aqsa Flood Operation began on October 7, Israel revoked the work permits given to all Palestinian workers from Gaza, where unemployment and poverty rates are rampant due to the ongoing 17-year-long siege imposed by the Zionist occupation.

These workers were then placed under illegal detention by the Occupation and subjected to weeks of horrific abuse and torture. The work permits of most Palestinian workers from the West Bank, where Israel maintains a similarly stifling control, were also revoked.

In the second quarter of 2023, 75,000 Palestinians from the Occupied West Bank and 12,000 from Gaza were employed in Israel’s construction sector, according to data from the Bank of Israel, along with 15,000 people from the West Bank who were employed informally and about 23,000 immigrant workers.

Palestinian and immigrant workers in Israel’s construction sector, are confined to what is known as “wet work”, which refers to the labour-intensive tasks of setting up a building’s structure, plastering, scaffolding, and other such tasks. They are employed both within the Green Line as well as in Israel’s illegal colonial settlements.

At the end of December, the Israeli finance ministry estimated that the loss of this workforce would cost the economy up to US$ 830 million each month.

Israel’s construction sector is considered to be the “most dangerous” employment sector. The “vast majority” of workers killed are Palestinians, including those holding Israeli citizenship.

As news began to circulate that Israel was turning to India to hire workers, the country’s ten major trade unions issued a statement in early November denouncing the move as “disastrous” and “immoral”: “Such [a] step will amount to complicity on India’s part with Israel’s ongoing genocidal war against Palestinians.”

While the Indian government stated at the time that it was not aware of any “specific numbers or requests”, the trade unions highlighted an agreement signed between India and Israel in May 2023, which would see the recruitment of up to 42,000 workers, 80 percent of whom would go into the construction sector while the rest would go into the care sector.

In December, the BJP-led government in the state of Haryana began a recruitment drive, seeking 10,000 workers to be sent to Israel, including for construction work. This was amid visits by Israeli “selectors”, including members of the Israeli Builders Association (IBA), to India to initiate the recruitment process. The IBA’s deputy director general told PTI that the association was seeking to initially bring 10,000 Indian workers, and then scale up to 30,000.

Soon after, it was reported that the state of Uttarakhand was “examining the possibility” of sending construction workers to Israel.

In late December, the government of another BJP-led state, Uttar Pradesh (UP), similarly started to recruit construction workers to be sent to Israel. The UP government has worked to establish close ties with the Israeli occupation, including in the fields of “police modernisation” in a state whose forces are known to have committed severe human rights violations.

Construction workers from UP who agree to go to Israel have been promised a monthly wage of up to US$ 1,609, much higher than India’s government-mandated minimum wage, which informally employed workers are still denied.

However, it is crucial to note that the wages will reportedly be deposited with the employing company and given to the workers only at the end of their contract, which could last between one to five years.

Following the initial announcement by the government of Haryana, the CWFI had called on its members to hold protests against the proposed recruitment.

“The Haryana Kaushal Rojgar Nigam (HKRN) has outlined specific criteria for individuals interested in the recruitment drive for young workers. This is a sinister ploy to exploit our country’s poor construction workers to send to Israel by offering lucrative salaries at the expense of death, starvation and income losses of fellow Palestinian workers,” the union said, adding that sending of workers would “in essence, extend support to its genocidal attacks on Palestine”.

Rather than engaging with negotiations to send workers to Israel, the union called on the Indian government to instead support the call for an immediate ceasefire at the United Nations and the establishment of an independent Palestinian state.

“Construction workers in India stand united with the working class and the people of Palestine, who are facing genocidal attacks by Israel with the full backing of the US and other imperialist countries,” CWFI said.

Tanupriya Singh is a writer at Peoples Dispatch and is based in Delhi

This article was first published on Peoples Dispatch