Indian Trade Unions, Activists oppose Recruitment Drive to Send Workers to Israel

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By Anwarulhaq Baig

NEW DELHI–In a move sparking strong opposition from major Indian trade unions, groups, and activists, the governments of Uttar Pradesh and Haryana have initiated a recruitment drive to send thousands of construction workers to Israel. This is raising concerns not only about compromising the lives of workers but also about potentially replacing Palestinian workers in the war-torn region, leading to a serious humanitarian crisis for Palestinians.

The controversial openings are being facilitated by the National Skill Development Corporation (NSDC), which operates under the Union Government. The primary worry revolves around the Indian government allegedly bypassing standard protective measures for its citizens working abroad in conflict zones and compromising its longstanding pro-Palestinian stance and policy. Trade unions and activists argue that sending Indian workers to Israel would effectively deny job opportunities to Palestinians already enduring hardship due to Israel.

In a conversation with IndiaTomorrow.net, Welfare Party of India president Dr. SQR Ilyas termed it as a betrayal to the Palestinian cause if India sends its labour force to replace those from the West Bank. Dr. Ilyas highlighted the lack of responsibility for the lives and security of Indian labourers in a war zone, where bombardments are occurring on both sides. He asserted that India should not send its labour force to Israel due to the current situation where Israel was acting as an apartheid state, conducting continuous bombardments on Palestine for the past three months, resulting in severe harm to the civilian population.

More than 23,000 people, including 70% women and children, have lost their lives in Israeli attacks in Gaza so far since October 7 last year.

Condemning Israel’s actions as a form of genocide, Dr. Ilyas said that entire neighborhoods were destroyed by Israel, hospitals were under bombardment, and relief camps were not spared from attacks. He lamented that despite the International Criminal Court issuing strong warnings and numerous resolutions by the United Nations, the bombardments have not ceased, causing a humanitarian crisis in Gaza.

Instead of sending workers to Israel, he asked the Indian government to take a stand against Israel’s occupation of Palestinian territories and demand an immediate ceasefire and withdrawal of Israeli forces from Gaza. He also advocates supporting the right of Palestinians to live freely in their independent state and calls for India to take a strong stance against Israeli aggressions rather than cooperating with them.

Talking to IndianTomorrow.net, Mumbai-based activist and National President of the Federation of Indian Trade Unions Shaikh Saleem vehemently criticized the plan, stating that it “will put Indian workers in a very odd situation where local Palestinians will see them as adversaries.”

Expressing concerns about the impact on social dynamics and the potential for resentment and conflict, Saleem said, “This will deny Palestinian workers job opportunities, a community that is under Israeli occupation and keeps suffering on a daily basis at the hands of the Israeli army and armed settlers in the West Bank. This will be like helpingOccupation forces directly and denying them daily bread and butter. This will also create a sour relationship between India and Palestine.”

Saleem called on the Indian government to “not accede to Israel’s demand” and refrain from sending workers to occupied territories, particularly the West Bank. He appealed to Indian workers to demonstrate solidarity with their Palestinian counterparts by refusing to go to Israel or replace them. He urged Union and state governments to “not be complicit with Israel in this genocidal war against the Palestinian people.”

Showing solidarity with Palestine, major Indian trade unions, including the Centre of Indian Trade Unions (CITU), All India Trade Union Congress (AITUC), Indian National Trade Union Congress (INTUC), and the BJP-linked Hind Mazdoor Sabha (HMS), recently opposed the Indian government’s decision to send construction workers to Israel. In a statement, they called upon the Indian government to cancel the agreement, signed in May 2023, during Israeli Foreign Minister Eli Cohen’s visit, which aimed to send 42,000 workers to Israel.

Construction Workers, Federation of India (CWFI), has also recently called upon all its members, all the construction workers of India, and also the people to protest against the moves to put the lives of construction workers at risk by sending them to Israel and make them indirect partners in its genocidal attacks on Palestinians.

Nearly 97000 construction workers, the largest group in the Israeli industry, come from the West Bank and Gaza Strip. Mostly Palestinian, their work permits were revoked following the October Hamas attacks, leaving Israel with a substantial shortage of construction labor. The Israeli government is now bringing in thousands of foreign workers to address this urgent crisis. In late December, the Israeli finance ministry projected that the revocation of the Palestinian workforce could result in a monthly economic loss of up to USD 830 million to the nation. The construction sector in Israel is acknowledged as the most hazardous employment category, with the majority of fatalities comprising Palestinians, including those with Israeli citizenship.

According to a recent Voice of America (VOA) report, the Israel Builders’ Association had asked the Israeli government to consider hiring about 100,000 Indian workers as a replacement for the Palestinian workforce.

Deputy Director General and Spokesperson for the Israel Builders Association (IBA), Shay Pauzner, while talking to PTI on December 20, 2023, informed, “At the moment we are looking to bring in 10,000 as per government approvals and this will scale up to 30,000 in the near future depending on how it goes. It is an ongoing exercise and will take months.”

In a telephonic conversation on December 19 between Prime Minister Narendra Modi and Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu, along with talking about developments in the ongoing Israel-Hamas conflict, both PMs discussed advancing the arrival of foreign workers from India to Israel, according to an Israel Prime Minister’s Office statement on X. “The two leaders also discussed advancing the arrival of foreign workers from India to the State of Israel,” wrote the Israeli PMO on X.

This recruitment drive in two Indian states initiated after a three-year agreement signed between the Union Ministry of Skill Development and Entrepreneurship, overseeing the NSDC, and the Israeli government.

In December, the government led by the Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP) in Haryana initiated a hiring move, aiming to recruit 10,000 workers destined for Israel, with roles including construction work.

According to a pamphlet uploaded by the Uttar Pradesh Non-Resident Indian (NRI) Department website, which outlines job openings and details for Indian workers in various roles including Shuttering Carpenter, Iron Bending, Ceramic Tile, and Plastering. According to the pamphlet, Israel is offering a minimum monthly salary of 6,100 NIS (approximately 137,000 INR), along with accommodation, food, and health insurance provided by the employer.

The NSDC has outlined a detailed application and selection process to ensure that candidates meet the necessary requirements, including age criteria (25-45 years) and 12th class educational qualifications. The pamphlet also provides answers to common questions, such as the number of Indians currently working in Israel (approximately 18,000), salary details and employer obligations. Many jobs are available for Indian candidates in Israel, including 3,000 positions for Shuttering Carpenter, 3,000 for Iron Bending, 2,000 for Ceramic Tile, and 2,000 for Plastering.

One of the major points of contention is the exemption of these workers from registering on the ‘e-migrate’ portal, a system designed to streamline guarantees and protections for workers going abroad. Additionally, the workers heading to Israel are not expected to receive the standard labour protections, insurance coverage, and employment guarantees mandated for workers going to most Gulf countries and other international labor markets. In the pamphlet, important notes include candidates covering Passport Issuance Fee, a ₹10,000 Registration and Processing fee payable to NSDC, pre-departure orientation supervised by NSDC, and candidates being responsible for their return flight ticket at the end of the employment period. Accommodation allowance and medical insurance charges are deducted from the candidate’s salary, with accrued amounts paid, minus deductions, upon leaving Israel permanently after the legal visa period.

According to media reports, trade unions, including the All India Trade Union Congress (AITUC), express concerns about the safety and security of the workers and plan to approach the courts have been announced, highlighting the potential risks faced by Indian workers. However, amidst the controversy, various government agencies have distanced themselves from the recruitment documents. According to a media report, the NSDC, which plays a key role in this initiative, clarifies that the advertisements were issued by state governments and not directly by the NSDC. However, according to the pamphlet, “NSDC and its Training Partners are the only authorized organizations supervising and assisting the application process.”

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