The Israel-India Worker Deal Resembles British Indenture

Indian workers in Uttar Pradesh (UP) seeking employment in Israel. Image: Getty Images

Michelle Buckley, Paula Chakravartty in Boston Review: In December, Indian Prime Minister Narendra Modi received a personal request from his friend and political ally, Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu: expedite the supply of Indian construction labor and other migrant workers to Israel. Prior to October 7, Palestinians from the West Bank and Gaza made up the majority of workers in Israel’s construction and agriculture sectors, doing crucial, if invisible, work in the country’s apartheid society. But in the wake of the Hamas attacks, Israel terminated the work permits—more than two hundred thousand in all—granted by Israel to Palestinian workers from the Occupied Palestinian Territories including Gaza. To fill the gap, thousands of Indian workers will soon arrive in Israel; the first planeload of workers has already landed. In the coming month, tens of thousands more men, hailing from some of India’s poorest states like Bihar and Uttar Pradesh, are expected to join them.

Unsurprisingly, the mass revocation of Palestinians’ work permits has created a pressing labor supply problem in Israel, with its construction industry facing the most severe shortages. Before this war, more than two-thirds of Palestinians working in Israel were employed in that sector. Indeed, for much of Israel’s history, writes Andrew Ross, “the hands that built Israel’s houses, schools, factories, offices, roads, bridges, and even its separation barriers, have been Palestinian.” So when the war began and Palestinians were barred from their jobs, urban development projects across Israel ground to a halt. Industry leaders are now reportedly looking to replace up to one hundred thousand Palestinians in the industry with workers from India, a number that has nearly doubled since December.

Israel already employs some eighteen thousand Indian migrant workers, mostly women working in the care sectors. Plans to greatly expand that number—particularly in the construction sector—have been afoot for some time. In May 2023, India and Israel signed a new bilateral agreement to bring forty-two thousand additional Indian laborers to Israel. Modi’s most recent agreement with Netanyahu aims to fast-track current plans even more, lifting restrictions to hasten migrant workers’ entry into Israel. The temporary, low-wage migrants from rural and small-town North India, some of the poorest regions in the country, are desperate for decent employment—so desperate that they’re willing to work for a regime that is actively engaged in what the International Court of Justice has called a “plausible genocide.” They’re seeking paid work they’ve failed to find within India’s growing but deeply unequal and caste-bound economy. Bilateral deals like the one between India and Israel give off the sheen of newness, appearing to be the products of a twenty-first century age of hypermobile capital. But in fact, the two countries are dusting off a time-worn strategy from the colonial archive: importing and exporting racially marked temporary labor to manage political and economic problems in one fell swoop.

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