Undeterred by risks of war, Indian men seek employment in Israel

Amid rising unemployment in their own country, laborers from India hope to fill thousands of jobs left open after deadly October 7 attacks and subsequent war in Gaza

Foreign workers work in agriculture near the Israeli border with the Gaza Strip, southern Israel, during the ongoing war in Gaza, December 25, 2023. (Moshe Shai/Flash90)
Foreign workers work in agriculture near the Israeli border with the Gaza Strip, southern Israel, during the ongoing war in Gaza, December 25, 2023. (Moshe Shai/Flash90)

ROHTAK, India — Thousands of men lined up in India’s northern state of Haryana during a recruitment drive to send workers to Israel, where the murderous terror onslaught carried out by Hamas on October 7 and subsequent war in Gaza, now in its fourth month, has caused a shortage of labor.

Masons, painters, electricians, plumbers and some farmers said they were looking for jobs in Israel with some willing to risk going into a conflict zone because they could make five times more money in a year than they would at home.

“There is unemployment here and it’s because of it that people want to leave,” said Lekharam, a mason who was among the workers gathered at a recruitment camp in Rohtak, 66 kilometers (40 miles) from the capital, New Delhi.

“If it’s in our destiny to die, then we can die either here or there. My hope is that we will go and do good work and spend some time and come back.”

India, now the world’s most populous nation with a population of 1.4 billion, has an urban unemployment rate of 6.6 percent, government data shows, but more than 17% of workers younger than 29 are unemployed and others work as casual laborers.

Unemployment and underemployment are a key concern for authorities, despite world-beating economic growth of 7.3%.

Members of the Youth Congress party sell vegetables as they demonstrate against the rising unemployment during the celebrations to mark India’s Prime Minister Narendra Modi’s birthday as the ‘National Unemployment Day’ in Amritsar on September 17, 2023. (Narinder Nanu/AFP)

An Indian foreign ministry spokesperson on Thursday said an agreement on labor mobility with Israel was signed even before the events of October 7.

“The idea behind this agreement was to put in place an institutional mechanism to regulate migration and ensure the rights of people who go there are protected,” said Randhir Jaiswal, the spokesperson.

“Labor laws in Israel are very strict and robust… we are very conscious of our responsibility to provide safety to our people abroad,” he told reporters.

Foreign Minister Eli Cohen attends a special committee for foreign workers on the Foreign Minister’s review of the agreements with the Government of India and the Government of Morocco regarding bringing in foreign workers in the construction industry and the nursing industry, in the Israeli parliament on June 12, 2023. (Yonatan Sindel/Flash90)

India’s National Skills Development Corporation canvassed in recent weeks for workers to live and work in Israel.

Recruiters at the camp refused to comment on the drive.

Vivek Sharma, a 28-year-old mason, said he was aware of the risks in Israel from the conflict but was willing to take the risk if he could earn more.

“Yes, I am aware of the conflict, but I can earn a lot of money in a short time,” said Sharma, who estimates he could end up earning more than a million Indian rupees ($12,000) by working in Israel for a year.

“It could take me at least five years to earn the same amount of money in India.”

Government data shows about 13 million Indian nationals work overseas as laborers, professionals and experts.

Israel and India signed an agreement last year to allow more than 40,000 Indians to work in the Jewish state in the nursing and construction sectors.

This month, an Israeli financial daily said the country planned to bring in about 70,000 foreign workers from China, India and elsewhere to boost its construction sector, which has come to a near-complete standstill since October 7, when thousands of Hamas-led terrorists launched attacks on more than 20 communities across southern Israel, slaughtering some 1,200 people and seizing around 240 hostages.

Following the deadly onslaught, Palestinian laborers disappeared from Israel overnight, as the country enacted an immediate ban on workers from Gaza and restricted access to most of those from the West Bank.

At the same time, more than 10,000 foreign workers, primarily from Thailand, fled after the attacks, which didn’t spare their communities either. Thirty-nine Thai workers were killed in the massacre, and 32 were dragged to Gaza as hostages.

In addition, over 350,000 Israelis have been called up to reserve duty, leaving yet more jobs unfilled.

While Palestinian laborers employed in Jewish settlements in the West Bank were allowed to return to work in recent weeks, those who had been employed inside the Green Line prior to October 7 have yet to be allowed to return to work.

The decision to ban the entry of most Palestinian workers from the West Bank could end up costing the economy up to NIS 3 billion ($798 million) a month, a representative from the Finance Ministry said in late December, while Israel continued to search for an alternative way to fill the open positions.

In late December, the Interior Ministry said that despite the ongoing war, over 12,000 new and veteran foreign workers had either arrived or returned to Israel, half of them from Thailand.

While the arrival of the foreign workers partially eased the burden on Israel, agriculture and construction have continued to struggle, and as many as 18,000 additional workers could still be required before various industries are able to return to operating at full capacity.

In addition to India, various agreements will see workers arrive from Sri Lanka, Ecuador, Kenya and Malawi.

Sam Sokol and Shoshanna Solomon contributed to this report.

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