Plans to allow Indian construction workers to plug gaps in Israel’s workforce could endanger their safety, claim unions

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As thousands of Indian workers rushed to recruitment centres in Uttar Pradesh and Haryana to apply for construction jobs in Israel despite the four-month-long Israeli-Hamas war that is ravaging Gaza and threatening to ignite a wider war in the Middle East, many of the country’s central trade unions demanded the government drop plans to “export… Indians to the strife-torn country to replace Palestinian workers”.

“Nothing could be more immoral and disastrous for India than the said ‘export’ of workers to Israel,” said 10 of the country’s biggest trade unions in a press statement. “That India is even considering ‘exporting’ workers show the manner in which it has dehumanised and commodified Indian workers.”

Tapan Kumar Sen, general secretary of the Centre of Indian Trade Unions (CITU), warned that the Indian government should not facilitate the process just because India continues to face a “high rate of unemployment”.

Credit: iStock, fmajor

In January, a group of trade union leaders claimed the central government was arranging to send thousands of construction workers to Israel without providing any insurance or being able to guarantee their safety.

The unions said that, if necessary, they would appeal to the country’s courts over the issue.

Questioning the government’s decision to allow construction workers to go to the country, Sen said: “They [the government and recruiters] are advertising it as a dream to go abroad… but the dangerous part is that whosoever applies because of the acute unemployment problem... the National Skill Development Corporation (NSDC) and the Ministry of External Affairs (MEA) have declined to take any responsibility for them, neither is there any job guarantee, nor any other insurance which should be done for migrant workers in other countries.”

According to 2022 data from the MEA, there were almost 13,000 Indian workers in Israel in that period.

Construction and caregiving sectors

Meanwhile, shedding more light on the agreement between the two nations to allow workers to travel to and work in Israel, MEA spokesperson Arindam Bagchi said the Indian government is engaged in a long-term plan to allow Indian workers to join the Israeli construction and caregiving sectors.

The move follows an official visit to India by Israeli foreign minister Eli Cohen in May last year. At the meeting, an agreement was signed between minister Cohen and his Indian counterpart, S Jaishankar, which aimed to allow approximately 42,000 Indian workers to move to Israel for work.

Following the meeting, the Israeli foreign ministry issued a statement confirming that 34,000 workers would be engaged in the construction sector and another 8,000 in nursing and caregiving roles.

Before the Hamas-led terror attack of 7 October, more than 150,000 Palestinian workers from the occupied West Bank entered Israel daily to work in a range of sectors, predominantly construction and agriculture.

However, since the conflict began in Gaza, their work permits have been cancelled and they are now barred from entering Israel. According to some reports, 50 per cent of Israel’s construction sites are closed and the nation is facing a shortfall of 140,000 workers.

Shock to the economy
At the recent World Economic Forum in Davos, Switzerland, the governor of the Bank of Israel Amir Yaron admitted that the immediate ban on nearly all Palestinian workers entering Israel following the terror attack has dealt a shock to the Israeli economy. “There is a supply shock… and it’s primarily in the construction industry where... a third of that industry is Palestinians from the West Bank, and now they’re not coming in to work.”

According to a Times of Israel report, Raul Sargo, president of the Israel Builders Association, told Israel’s parliament, the Knesset: “We are in very dire straits... the industry is at a complete standstill and is only 30 per cent productive. Fifty per cent of the sites are closed and there is an impact on Israel’s economy and the housing market.”

Israeli farms, construction sites and hotels are among the sectors struggling with a shortage of workers since the war broke out, and some foreign migrant labourers have left, fearing for
their safety.

Meanwhile, the states of Haryana and Uttar Pradesh (UP) have each advertised around 10,000 positions for construction workers in Israel. In February, UP sent a list of 16,000 potential workers to Israel for them to make a decision about who to recruit, the state labour minister Anil Rajbhar said.

Higher salaries
With the Israeli government agency, the Population, Immigration and Border Authority (PIBA), offering salaries of between Rs 1,36,000 and Rs 1,37,000 per month to construction labourers, the prospect of much higher salaries than available in India is attracting many Indian workers, despite the possible risks to their safety from the ongoing conflict.

Labourers queuing up outside the Industrial Training Institute (ITI) in Lucknow in January told reporters that their sole aim was to secure a sufficient wage to support themselves and their families, and they would consider jobs on offer in any part of the world. Many added they were undeterred by the potential risks to their safety from working in a country involved in a nearby conflict, arguing that they currently faced unemployment and poverty in India.

Unfortunately, these workers are unaware of the fact that construction and work site accidents are common in Israel. Watchdog groups have frequently complained of dangerous working conditions in the construction sector and inadequate oversight of safety om building sites.

Largest number of accidents in construction
According to Kav LaOved (KLO), an Israeli non-profit association that campaigns for workers’ rights, Israel’s construction industry recorded the largest number of work accidents among all of the country’s labour market sectors in 2021. There were 471 work accidents across all sectors, of which 251 (more than half) occurred in the construction industry.

“Despite the positive developments following 2018’s Histadrut Agreement, signed by Israel’s largest trade union and the Ministry of Labour to improve safety conditions in construction, 52.7 per cent of all fatal work accidents in the country still happen within the construction sector, compared to 22 per cent in the European Union,” KLO stated.

Recently, a KLO report revealed that more than 40 workers died in workplace accidents in Israel during the first half of 2023, representing a 40 per cent increase compared to the same period in 2022

The report said that nearly half of those fatalities were in the construction industry.