Carpenters, bricklayers and painters waited in line at a college campus in the Indian city of Lucknow this week in hope of being selected for better-paid jobs in Israel, with most playing down concerns about working in a conflict zone.
Israel’s construction industry has been calling for the recruitment of foreign workers to fill jobs previously occupied by about 80,000 Palestinian workers barred from entering Israel since the start of the war between Israel and the Hamas militant group in October.
Indian workers have been promised monthly salaries of US$1,600 by Israel’s Population Immigration and Border Authority (PIBA) - equivalent to almost a full year’s salary for many Indian construction workers.
For workers like Ashok Biswas, a 45-year-old mason who travelled 1,000 km (620 miles) from West Bengal to Lucknow when he heard about the hiring drive, the prospect of a much higher salary made the decision to apply easy, despite the ongoing conflict with Hamas.
“Our sole goal is to secure a means to live and it could be anywhere in the world,” Biswas told Context as he queued up outside the Industrial Training Institute (ITI) on Monday.
Israel plans to bring in about 70,000 foreign workers from China, India and elsewhere to boost its construction sector, which has been largely frozen since the Oct. 7 Hamas attack that triggered the war, an Israeli newspaper reported this month.
The government is taking a position by sending our workers to a war-torn and unsafe environment, which contradicts our immigration policy.
Amarjeet Kaur, general secretary, All India Trade Union Congress
Israeli farms, buildings sites and hotels are among the sectors struggling with a shortage of workers since the war erupted, and some foreign migrant labourers have left, fearing for their safety.
Tough labour market
During the week-long recruitment campaign in Lucknow, just over 5,000 people were selected, said Ajay Kumar Raina from the federal government’s National Skill Development Corporation (NSDC).
Five more Indian states have also asked the NSDC to carry out recruitment for Israeli jobs, Raina said.
Their interest highlights India’s tough labour market, with creation of formal jobs stagnating and high rates of joblessness among the young, economic analysts say.
India, now the world’s most populous nation with a population of 1.4 billion, has an urban unemployment rate of 6.6 per cent, government data shows, but more than 17 per cent of workers younger than 29 are unemployed and others work as casual labour.
Unemployment and underemployment are a key concern for authorities, despite world-beating economic growth of 7.3 per cent.
Shashikant Yadav, a 25-year-old college graduate who was among those participating in the selection process, said strong interest in migrating to work in a conflict zone highlighted job-seekers’ problems in India.
“If there was employment, who would leave their homes to go to Israel?” Yadav said.
As Hindu-Muslim tensions in India simmer ahead of this year’s election, one local recruiter was quoted as saying on social media that Muslims would not be allowed to apply for the Israeli jobs - a claim swiftly denied by Indian government officials.
In the crowd in Lucknow, Mohammad Nazim, a Muslim mason from the city of Ghaziabad, said he had been free to apply.
“Despite fears, as Muslims, we’ve faced no hindrance so far,” said Nazim, a father-of-two, adding that like the other applicants in Lucknow, he simply wanted to earn a better wage.
Israeli efforts to recruit foreign workers during the war have drawn criticism from trade unionists in India, with some calling the push “immoral” and criticising the Indian government for agreeing to send workers.
“The government is taking a position by sending our workers to a war-torn and unsafe environment, which contradicts our immigration policy,” said Amarjeet Kaur, general secretary of All India Trade Union Congress (AITUC).
Indian government officials have said an agreement on labour mobility with Israel was signed before the Hamas conflict erupted, saying workers’ safety and rights would be protected.
But many of the workers lining up in Lucknow said the promise of increased income was their only concern.
“Loyalty goes to the land that offers us sustenance - in this venture, it means supporting Israel,” 29-year-old Imtiaz Ansari said after completing a practical test on tiling.
After travelling from his home in Maharajganj near the Nepal border, Ansari said he waited three days just to get registered and had been sleeping at the railway station.
“My primary goal is to secure a better income to afford quality education for my two kids,” he said.
This story was published with permission from Thomson Reuters Foundation, the charitable arm of Thomson Reuters, that covers humanitarian news, climate change, resilience, women’s rights, trafficking and property rights. Visit https://www.context.news/.