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Indian unions reject Modi’s ‘export deal’ to replace Palestinian workers in Israel

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Picture: WAFA News Agency – Palestinian workers wait to be allowed to cross into Israel. India’s Central Trade Union Organisations, representing approximately 100 million workers, have strongly condemned reported talks between New Delhi and Israel that could see the “export” of up to 100,000 Indian workers to replace Palestinian workers, the writer says.

By Peoples Dispatch

India’s Central Trade Union Organisations (CTUOs), representing approximately 100 million workers, have strongly condemned reported talks between New Delhi and the Israeli Occupation that could see the “export” of up to 100,000 Indian workers to replace Palestinian workers in Israel.

Though the Indian Ministry of External Affairs has so far said that it is not aware of any such “specific request”, it has confirmed that India and Israel have been involved in discussions for a bilateral framework for mobility and migration, particularly in construction and care sectors.

However, in a statement released last week, the joint platform of trade unions and independent federations pointed to an agreement signed between the two countries in May 2023, during a visit by Israeli foreign minister Eli Cohen, under which India would send 42,000 workers to Israel, 80 percent of whom would go to the construction sector.

“The Indian Government is playing a despicable role of supporting the Israeli plans to throw out Palestinian workers…Nothing could be more immoral and disastrous for India than the said “export” of workers to Israel. That India is even considering “exporting” works shows the manner in which it has dehumanised and commodified Indian workers,” the statement read.

“Such [a] step will amount to complicity on India’s part with Israel’s ongoing genocidal war against Palestinians,” it further added.

In a separate statement, the general secretary of the Construction Workers Federation of India (CWFI), UP Joseph, affirmed that the organisation’s strong objection “to any attempt to send the poor construction workers of our country to Israel to overcome its shortage of workers and in any way support its genocidal attacks on Palestine …”

Thousands of Gazan workers detained and abused

On October 7, as the Operation Al Aqsa Flood by the resistance broke the barbaric siege on the Gaza Strip, the Israeli Occupation began revoking the work permits given to thousands of Palestinian workers within the Green Line.

An estimated 4,000 workers from Gaza were subsequently abducted and detained, as the Israeli Minister of Security issued an order declaring them as “unlawful combatants”. Palestinians from Gaza only became aware of the revocation on October 11, a move which had rendered their presence in Israel “illegal.” Workers from Gaza were also forced into the Occupied West Bank.

In early November, as Israel continued its barbaric bombardment of Gaza, videos emerged of released Palestinian workers being forced to walk on foot to reach Gaza via the Karem Shalom crossing. Workers also showed numbered blue tags that had been fastened on their ankles.

At least one person reportedly died during the journey.

Meanwhile, horrific testimonies of abuse and torture began to emerge, including the killing of at least two people in Israeli detention facilities in the West Bank, one of whom was identified as 32-year-old Majid Zaqoul, at the Israeli Ofer prison, and another person at the Anatot base

In an affidavit submitted to Palestinian human rights organisation, Al Haq, a 30-year-old Palestinian man, identified as AA, from Gaza described a brutal raid conducted by Israeli occupation forces at an accommodation he was sharing with six other young workers on October 7. The men were forced to strip down to their underwear and their hands and legs were bound. AA described being beaten by Israeli police, who even set a police dog on his back.

“When we left our residence, I saw the lifeless bodies of two individuals who had been shot, lying on their backs with blood stains on their heads and abdomens. I believe they were [Palestinian] workers from Gaza, as their clothes had paint stains. Around them, two settlers were urinating on their dead bodies. Later, a third settler arrived and kicked the shoulder of one of the deceased workers,” AA said.

He was then taken to an unknown location where he was interrogated, and then held captive in a cage-like iron and cement enclosure in a yard. Blindfolded and with their hands and feet still bound, the workers were subsequently taken to a different location, and finally to a third location which turned out to be a military checkpoint at Qalandia, north of Jerusalem, in the Occupied West Bank, where they were then rescued and housed.

Several similar testimonies have emerged of Palestinian workers from Gaza being tortured and beaten, their phones and belongings seized by the occupation forces, and being starved of food in detention. Hundreds of people are still seeking shelter in the Occupied West Bank.

An economy under siege

The punitive revocation of work permits given to Palestinians is part of the systematic stifling by Israel of any kind of sovereign economy in the Occupied Territories or Gaza — of which Israel remains an occupier, despite the so-called “disengagement” in 2005.

70 percent of Gaza’s population is Palestinian refugees who were ethnically cleansed and violently dispossessed during the Nakba in 1948. The Israeli settler colonial apartheid state has worked to sever the ties between the Palestinian people and their land, forcing large swathes of the indigenous people into forced economic exploitation, and to quite literally, build the Occupation and its illegal colonial settlements.

Since the imposition of a siege in 2006, Israel has placed blanket restrictions on trade and movement to and from Gaza as well as through checkpoints in the Occupied Territories. This has resulted in a situation where, according to Palestinian researcher Walid Habbas, “One-hundred percent of Palestinian foreign trade passes through the Israel borders regardless of if it is a trade with Israel or the external world”, as quoted by Haaretz.

By the end of 2022, the Israeli occupation accounted for 72 percent of all Palestinian trade, according to the United Nations Conference on Trade and Economic Development (UNCTAD).

Even prior to the ongoing bombardment of the besieged Strip, the unemployment rate in Gaza stood around 50 percent, soaring to 70 percent among the youth. In 2021, 81.5 percent of Gazans lived below the national poverty line. The UN has warned that if the war against Gaza proceeds to a second month, the poverty rate could rise by 34 percent, or nearly 500,000 people.

The decimation of Gaza’s economy by Israel has been exacerbated by repeated direct military offensives by the Occupation. In a report released on November 6, the International Labor Organisation (ILO) stated that at least 61 percent of employment, or 182,000 jobs, had been wiped out in Gaza since October 7.

The Occupied West Bank, which Israel similarly turned into a source of cheap and exploited labour after 1967 and the Oslo process of the 1990s, has witnessed employment losses of 24 percent or 208,000 jobs. The damage inflicted on both Gaza and West Bank amounts to USD 16 million in daily labour income losses.

Israel continues to colonise 17 percent of Gaza, which includes 35 percent of its agricultural land, through the demarcation of illegal restricted areas. Palestinian fishermen, who are already restricted to narrow zones off the Gazan Coast, are routinely harassed, attacked and even killed by the Israeli occupation.

On November 13, Israel also bombed the Nuseirat Beach, burning down Palestinian fishing boats and nets.

In a briefing on November 12, the UN Food and Agriculture Organisation (FAO) head Qu Dongyu stated that the agency considered “all the civilian population in Gaza to be food insecure,” noting that 60 percent of households were already facing hunger prior to the ongoing Israeli bombardment.

Israel’s erosion of Gaza’s economy, a process which research scholar Sara Roy has termed “de-development,” has also manufactured a dependence of Palestinians in the enclave on humanitarian aid — with 80 percent of the population reliant on foreign assistance.

This serves as another lever of control for Israel, allowing it to simply cut off fuel, food, and water to Gaza as it bombs hospitals, refugee camps, schools, and homes — all while the US pats it on the back for four-hour “humanitarian pauses” in an ongoing genocide.

Replacing one exploited workforce with another

Approximately 18,500 Palestinians from Gaza held Israeli work permits prior to October 7. In 2022, Israel issued 27,000 such permits, more than double the number issued a year prior, when Israel lifted a 15-year-ban on permits for Gaza.

However, according to a report by the ILO, only around 3 percent of the permits given to Gazans were “proper work permits providing wage benefits and social protection.” This is not withstanding the fact that the permits themselves are subject to quotas, and are often and arbitrarily revoked by Israel. These permits are also specifically issued for low-wage work.

Palestinian workers in sectors such as construction and agriculture, especially in the settlements, continue to face exploitation and rights violations. This includes the enforcement of discriminatory laws where Israeli workers are entitled to Israel’s labour laws while Palestinian workers are subjected to old Jordanian laws on lower wages and no benefits and healthcare.

According to information provided by the Palestinian ministry of Labour to the ILO, 53 Palestinian workers died in Israel in 2022, out of which 44 people worked in the construction sector. The Palestinian General Federation of Trade Unions also reported that six workers were killed by Israeli occupation forces while travelling to workplaces in Israel or its illegal settlements.

Meanwhile, Israeli organisation Kav LaOved reported that 18 Palestinians had died in work accidents in the Israeli labour market in 2022. 23 workers were killed in occupational accidents in the construction sector in 2022 according to the General Federation of Labour in Israel (Histadrut).

According to a 2019 survey by the Palestinian Central Bureau of Statistics (PCBS), the construction sector in Israel and its illegal settlements accounted for 65 percent of all Palestinian employment.

The exploitation of Palestinian labour is so critical for the Occupation’s construction sector that a strike by workers during the uprising in May 2021 inflicted damages worth almost USD 40 million each day, according to the Israeli Builders Association. Since October 7, Israel’s construction industry is reportedly functioning at 15 percent capacity.

That Israel is now potentially turning to replace Palestinians with workers from India should also be understood in the broader context of the neoliberal restructuring of its economy, allowing it to reduce its reliance on Palestinian labour, while still maintaining a stronghold over the Palestinian economy.

In their statement, the CTUOs also condemned the “unethical and duplicitous” stand taken by the Narendra Modi government on Israel’s war on Gaza: “first the quick expression of solidarity with Israel, then studied backtracking by the Foreign Ministry, sending humanitarian aid to Palestine, and finally abstaining from supporting the UN resolution for a ceasefire!”.

Speaking to Peoples Dispatch, A.R. Sindhu, a national secretary of the Centre of Indian Trade Unions (CITU) stated that at a time when there was a “war against humanity” being waged in Gaza, an agreement with the Israeli state was tantamount to “helping war criminals.”

“We as the working class are firmly against this and we stand with the struggle of the Palestinian people,” she said.

Sindhu also highlighted how the Modi government’s recent actions marked a stark departure from India’s historical stand on Palestine, especially given that India was the first non-Arab state to recognise the Palestine Liberation Organisation and was among the first few to recognise the State of Palestine.

Importantly, she added that this departure from stated foreign policy was taking place at a time when India’s corporate sector has been cementing ties with Israel – particularly, billionaire businessman Gautam Adani, widely perceived as a close ally of prime minister Modi and a major beneficiary of his government’s policies.

Adani recently acquired the Port of Haifa for USD 1.2 billion, and has also signed numerous defence agreements with Israeli weapons manufactures directly complicity in Palestinian genocide, including Elbit Systems.

“We can clearly see who is benefitting from the occupation of Palestine”, Sindhu said. “The Indian government is surrendering even its foreign policy and going against humanity to support corporate interests”.

“Given the large-scale unemployment in India, they think they can do as they please when it comes to the workers, even if it is inhuman. We can see it in India even now that the safety of construction workers is not ensured, even in foreign countries, workers are not safe. The government is not bothered about that but it is now helping Israel and Indian monopoly capital. We will oppose this and the trade union movement is united in this,” Sindhu affirmed.

CITU has been joined by the Indian National Trade Union Congress (INTUC), All India Trade Union Congress (AITUC), All India United Trade Union Centre (AIUTUC), All India Central Council of Trade Unions (AICCTU), Trade Union Co-ordination Centre (TUCC), Self-employed Women’s Association (SWEA), United Trade Union Congress (UTUC), Hind Mazdoor Sabha (HMS), and Labour Progressive Federation (LPF).

The joint platform has demanded that the proposed deal to send Indian workers to Israel be scrapped immediately, that there be an immediate halt to Israeli aggression against Palestine, an end to the occupation, and that the Palestinian right to a sovereign homeland be upheld – this is the only possible route to peace.

It further called upon the Indian working class to resolve to not work to replace Palestinian workers, to boycott Israeli products and to join their counterparts in other countries in refusing to handle Israeli cargo, in solidarity with the international call issued by Palestinian trade unions.

This article was first published on Peoples Dispatch