Iran-Israel tensions cloud plans for thousands of Indian workers recruited for Israeli con...

Iran-Israel tensions cloud plans for thousands of Indian workers recruited for Israeli construction sites

After facilitating recruitment, government’s advisory against travel leads to confusion, worries among workers; experts question poor planning, moral justification of hiring amidst rising tensions, death of worker

War clouds between Iran and Israel have cast a shadow over the future of more than 5,000 Indians who have been recruited for construction work in Israel, even as experts questioned the government for allowing the recruitment at this time.

In an advisory issued on Friday evening, the Ministry of External Affairs (MEA) asked all Indians “not to travel” to Iran or Israel until further notice, in view of escalating tensions between the two countries after Iran threatened reprisal for Israel’s bombing of its embassy in Damascus. 

At least 500 Indians, hired after a process facilitated by the National Skill Development Council (NSDC) along with Israel’s Population, Immigration and Border Authority (PIBA), have already flown to Israel since April 2, when the first group of 64 workers were flagged off in a ceremony hosted by the Israeli Embassy in Delhi. When asked, NSDC officials who facilitated the recruitment drive said that the advisory is for all citizens, and hence the process had witnessed a “temporary disruption”.

Plans on hold

Unnao-based Satish Kumar, who was among a group of 325 Indians who were packed and ready to leave India on April 16, says he is anxiously following news about developments in the region through social media chat groups.

“On Friday, we were informed that all plans had been put on hold until further notice, in view of the rising tensions,” he told The Hindu over the telephone from Unnao. “We have been assured that the ₹66,800 paid by us for flight tickets and other charges will not be lost, that the delay is temporary, but I am very worried,” he added, explaining that he had taken a loan from a relative to pay for all the expenses ahead of the trip. 

According to the terms offered by the Israeli agency, the workers are expected to travel at their own expense and will only receive contracts once they land in Tel Aviv. A sample contract available on the PIBA website seen by The Hindu details that insurance, accommodation, and food will be arranged by employers but their costs will be deducted from workers’ salaries. Even so, the contracts for a promised ₹1.37 lakh a month are far higher than what these workers could hope to receive in India, and tens of thousands had applied for the roughly 10,000 jobs listed, seeking skills such as carpentering, welding, plastering, and ceramic tiling.

“Now, with uncertainty looming over the process, we feel we are at a crossroads. On our social media groups, the desperation is evident from messages by candidates,” Mr. Kumar added.

Hiring amidst rising tensions

Israeli officials had been pushing to fast-track the recruitment process for the past few months, given a major shortfall in labour since the October 7 terror attacks by Hamas, following which the Netanyahu government revoked the entry permits for more than one lakh Palestinian workers. As a result, groups of Indian workers cleared for employment in Israel have been flying to Tel Aviv every day on board commercial flights.

On Thursday, an official Israeli government statement had announced that more than 6,000 Indian workers would reach Israel during April and May, with the government approving ticketed chartered flights for the workers. The MEA had also been helping facilitate the process, despite an earlier advisory issued by the Indian Embassy in Israel regarding the safety of workers, after an Indian was killed and two injured in a Hezbollah rocket attack on Israel’s northern boundary.

‘Poor planning’

K.C. Singh, a former Ambassador to Iran and the United Arab Emirates, said the Union government’s actions “reflected poorly” on its planning for this eventuality. “The government has known for several months about tensions in the region. If an advisory was in the works, how morally justified was it to send workers there at this time?” he asked, in comments to The Hindu. He also questioned the government’s decision to accept the Israeli request for workers to replace Palestinians, given that eight million Indians work in the rest of the Gulf region, where the populations are inimical. “By allowing workers to go, they are also sowing the seeds of anti-India feelings in the region,” he added. 

About 18,000 Indians live in Israel at present, working or pursuing their studies there. In addition, more than a thousand workers are believed to have travelled there in the past few months on private individual contracts before the government-to-government recruitment process began.

‘More protections needed’

Labour activists who asked not to be named said that the “temporary pause” in sending workers to Israel should be used by the government to ensure more protections for them. At present, neither Israel nor Iran are on the government’s Emigration Clearance Required (ECR) list of countries where workers are mandated to register on the “E-migrate” portal that offers more facilities for those travelling to conflict zones. They also said that New Delhi should press Israeli authorities to provide more clarity on the locations where Indians will work, in particular, keeping them away from unsafe border areas and occupied territories where violence has been on the rise.

“The Iran-Israel tensions may subside in the next few months, but ensuring pre-insurance, safety should be a long-term priority for the government,” an activist working with the recruits said.

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