Israel turns to Indian workers as Gaza war worsens labor shortage

Prime Minister Narendra Modi of India virtually joined President Biden and Israel and UAE leaders for inaugural I2U2 meeting July 14, 2022. Photo: videograb Twitter @narendramodi

NEW DELHI – Israel is looking to address a major labor shortage, abruptly worsened by the conflict with Hamas, by recruiting tens of thousands of Indians at a time when Palestinians who have long played a crucial role in Israeli construction and other sectors are being barred from the country.

While Israel had already been in discussions with India about recruitment before the Oct. 7 attacks by Hamas against Israelis and Israel’s withering reprisal in Gaza, tough new restrictions on Palestinian workers have dealt a blow to the economy. Many foreign workers, notably thousands from Thailand, have headed home because of the conflict.

Israeli authorities say they are hoping to see 10,000 to 20,000 Indian migrant workers in the coming months. That would be equal to the total number of foreign workers that entered the country through bilateral agreements in 2021, according to Israel’s Center for International Migration and Integration (CIMI).

“India will be one of, if not the, largest supplier of building workers in Israel in the coming years,” said Shay Pauzner, the deputy director general of the Israel Builders Association, adding that about 5,000 workers in New Delhi and Chennai had already been secured.

Pauzner said his association had turned to India “because of the decision to stop the Palestinian workers coming to Israel since the beginning of the war.” About one-third of the workers in the Israeli construction sector had been Palestinians, but work permits had been canceled for those from Gaza and the occupied West Bank after fighting erupted. “Right now we are looking for any way to close this gap. We are under a lot of pressure,” he said.

In December, Raul Srugo, president of the Israel Builders Association told Israeli lawmakers that industry output is at 30 percent. “As far as we’re concerned, you can bring workers from the moon,” he said.

Israel’s turn toward Indian workers in part reflects the warming of relations with India in recent years. Indian Prime Minister Narendra Modi has publicly embraced Israel.

Even before the Gaza war, the two countries signed an agreement in May that would send 42,000 Indian construction and nursing workers to Israel, according to comments by former Israeli foreign minister Eli Cohen in the Israeli parliament. Advertisements for recruitment across India show salaries ranging from $1,400 to $1,700 per month. Roughly 17,000 Indian workers now reside in Israel, mostly employed in nursing, according to local Indian media and Israeli officials.

While Indian officials minimized any connection with the war, they also said recruitment is now accelerating. “This is just the beginning,” said an Indian government official involved in recruitment who was not authorized to speak officially. “The objective is that this has to be much wider.”

Israeli government officials deny that the move is explicitly designed to replace Palestinian workers but acknowledge there is new pressure. “The current situation has its demands,” said an Israeli government official, who spoke on the condition of anonymity because of the sensitivity of ongoing negotiations. “Of course, now there is a sense of more urgency.”

Before the war, a new “all-time high” of 193,000 Palestinians worked in Israel and Israeli settlements in the occupied territories after a one-third jump in 2022, according to the International Labor Organization. One-fifth of the West Bank workforce was employed in Israel.

But those numbers plummeted after violence broke out. “Letting workers from the territory of an enemy population into Israel during a war is a terrible mistake that will cost blood,” Gideon Saar, an opposition lawmaker serving in the emergency government, told the Times of Israel. And Economy Minister Nir Barkat told the Jerusalem Post that the Oct. 7 attack exposed the “risks” of employing Palestinians and stated his plan to replace them with foreign workers.

The return of Palestinian workers into Israel has become entangled in the country’s wartime politics. In addition to construction companies and hospitals, many in the security establishment are pushing for employment permits to be reactivated in significant numbers. The lack of wages, they fear, will contribute to despair and anger in the West Bank, where violence has already surged during the Gaza war.

But reports that Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu was prepared to launch a pilot program allowing certain vetted Palestinians to come back to their jobs ran into stiff opposition from right-wing lawmakers. More than a dozen members of his own Likud party condemned the plan in a public letter Wednesday.

In India, Amit Kumar, a recruiter in a small town in Uttar Pradesh state who works with a large New Delhi workforce agency called Dynamic Staffing Services, is telling interested workers that Muslims cannot apply for the job. “They don’t want Muslim workers,” he said in an interview. In numerous YouTube videos explaining the process and calling for applications, he tells viewers, “Your name should be Hindu,” and “Only Hindu brothers can apply.”

Government officials who oversee recruitment and Indian workforce agencies – including in the states of Haryana and Uttar Pradesh and in the city of Hyderabad – said there was no restriction on Muslim workers. Dynamic Staffing managers did not respond to repeated requests for comment.

Indian unions and activists have lambasted the recruitment drive, alleging dangerous conditions for workers. “We are against this because it is sending workers into the mouth of death,” said Ramher Bhivani, general secretary of a construction workers union in Haryana. “They entice workers with a lavish salary, but none of my workers will go.”

Several Indian unions, meantime, have released press releases stating that the step would signal “complicity” with “Israel’s ongoing genocidal war against Palestinians.”

During the October attack, Hamas militants killed 39 Thai migrant workers and took 32 hostage, Thai officials told Reuters. About 7,000 Thai workers, out of 30,000 in total, left Israel after the attack, according to the Times of Israel, and Thai Prime Minister Srettha Thavisin appealed for the remaining Thai workers to come back. Since 2014, Thai workers have consistently accounted for more than two-thirds of migrant workers arriving through bilateral agreements.

Nepali workers also departed after the attack, leaving Israeli nursing homes operating with only half their staff, according to an Israeli parliamentary committee on foreign workers.

The Israeli official downplayed the danger to Indian workers. “We aren’t going to send people into areas that we ourselves aren’t willing to work,” he said.

Many Indian workers seem undeterred. “I need to work somewhere or another. It’s dangerous here, too,” said Vinod Dangi, a construction worker in Haryana who only has a few documents left to complete before getting to go to Israel. “But I am not going for Israel. I am going for my family.”

He has watched numerous videos online about Israel to learn more, including several videos of Kumar, the recruiter in Uttar Pradesh.

“Wherever they are from, they are just saying one thing,” Kumar said in a YouTube video. “Sir, I want to go to Israel.”



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