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With Palestinian laborers shut out of Israel, Indian workers line up for jobs there

Indian men line up at a registration office set up in a technical college in the northern Indian city of Lucknow, where they hope to sign up to work in Israel.
Diaa Hadid/NPR
Indian men line up at a registration office set up in a technical college in the northern Indian city of Lucknow, where they hope to sign up to work in Israel.

LUCKNOW, India — A devotional song blares from a Hindu temple as dozens of men cram in line for the chance to register for work in Israel. But mostly what the men hear are orders. An official directs them to a warehouse-style waiting room if they haven't already signed up. As the men jostle to get to the head of the line, a security guard orders them to sit down on the ground. "Do it like gentlemen," the guard orders. "No need for mischief!"

This unruly line outside a vocational training center in the northern Indian city of Lucknow is more than 2,700 miles away from Gaza — and it spotlights the many ways the war between Israel and Hamas is affecting life around the world.

Israel suspended the work permits of most Palestinian laborers after Hamas-backed militants attacked Israel on Oct. 7, killing more than 1,200 people and taking 240 hostages, according to Israeli authorities. That triggered the latest war between Israel and Hamas in Gaza, where more than 27,000 Palestinians have been killed since Oct. 7, according to Gaza health officials.

Palestinian laborers formed the backbone of Israel's construction sector. After the work permit suspensions, most building sites lie idle.

"We don't bring in Arabs from Judea and Samaria because it is a security risk," said Israeli Finance Minister Bezalel Smotrich, using a biblical term to describe the Israeli-occupied West Bank. This is what prompted Israel to look for "alternatives," he said during a Feb. 4 news conference.

India appears to be one of those alternatives.

Haim Feiglin, the deputy president of the Israel Builders Association, told Voice of America soon after the war began that the association was hoping to bring in anywhere from 50,000 to 100,000 workers from India. "Right now we are negotiating with India. We are waiting for [the] decision of the Israeli government to approve that," he said in an interview on Nov. 1.

Barely two months later, the northern Indian states of Haryana and Uttar Pradesh each advertised 10,000 jobs for skilled laborers in Israel. According to an advertisement issued by the Haryana state government, the Israeli recruiters seek carpenters, blacksmiths, tilers and plasterers.

Those selected after on-spot interviews and skill tests will receive a monthly wage of more than $1,600, more than five or six times what they would receive for the same work in India.

Among the men hopeful for jobs in Israel is Ram Kumar, a 36-year-old carpenter who traveled more than 150 miles to register in Lucknow. On a recent damp, cold morning, he tells NPR it's his third day waiting in line. "I have two kids, a wife and a father to look after," he says.

He is still at the back, with hundreds in front of him. The sheer number of job seekers over the previous two days means by the time he gets close to the registration desk, officials will call it a day, he says.

Kumar has spent nights at a cousin's home nearby. He says others are sleeping on nearby pavements, on the platform of the nearby railway station and even in an abandoned lot between buildings.

An Indian man holds up a registration form to work in Israel. He was recently at a registration office in the northern Indian city of Lucknow after two Indian states, Haryana and Uttar Pradesh, recently announced they were seeking to recruit 10,000 skilled laborers each to Israel.
/ Diaa Hadid/NPR
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Diaa Hadid/NPR
An Indian man holds up a registration form to work in Israel. He was recently at a registration office in the northern Indian city of Lucknow after two Indian states, Haryana and Uttar Pradesh, recently announced they were seeking to recruit 10,000 skilled laborers each to Israel.

Nearby, Bahadur Singh is also applying to work in Israel, even though he's nervous. "We've heard there are lots of bombs and missiles being thrown around," he says.

"Then don't apply if you're so worried!" snaps an eavesdropping fellow candidate.

But the promise of better compensation is too strong a draw.

"I want to give my children a better life than me," Singh says.

India's foreign ministry has not said whether the men will be sent to areas close to conflict zones, but aspokesperson noted that Israel generally has robust worker protections.

Singh says he was motivated to apply because this recruitment drive comes out of a deal between the Indian and Israeli governments, and a government-to-government deal meant he wasn't risking being fleeced by employment agents — that happened to him a few years ago. "Fraud, sir, fraud," he says, shaking his head.

He says he paid an agent his life savings, $600, on the promise of a job abroad. Then the agent disappeared. It's a common story for Indians seeking work abroad.

Israel and India inked the deal to send Indian workers last May. It was seen as a way of regulating labor between the two countries, which has been growing over the years. Indian skilled laborers and care workers in particular seek employment in Israel because of its relatively high wages. But Israel remains a small market for expatriate Indian labor compared with the Gulf region, for instance, where an estimated 9 million Indians work.

The rush for wide-scale recruitment to Israel began in earnest after the conflict erupted between Israel and Hamas.

Indian trade unions see the current recruitment as an effort to replace Palestinians who have lost their livelihoods following the outbreak of war.

"Nothing could be more immoral and disastrous," said a statement in November by 10 unions, mostly representing construction workers. "Such a step will amount to complicity on India's part with Israel's ongoing genocidal war against Palestinians."

Members of the Congress party, the chief opposition to the Hindu nationalist ruling party, also criticized the decision to allow Indian workers to be sent to Israel.

"What are we essentially saying by doing this?" asked Praveen Chakravarty, a political economist affiliated with the Congress party. "We are essentially saying, don't worry. Even if you attack Palestinians and you do not have Palestinian labor, we will supplement that. That is direct intervention."

A government official who spoke on condition of anonymity because he was not authorized to speak to the media on this subject told NPR that the recruitment drive was "never intended to replace Palestinian workers in any sector."

But he acknowledged the rushed recruitment drive could be related to the current conflict. "It is possible that some fresh recruitment is being done due to reasons completely internal to Israel," he said.

Navtej Sarna, a former Indian ambassador to Israel, says the deal demonstrates the strength of the India-Israel relationship. "It shows the two governments are comfortable working with each other, and this is something which has built up over the last 30 years," he says.

Before that, India was a prominent ally of Palestinians. It established full diplomatic relations with Israel only in 1992.

At a registration center in Lucknow, Indian men submit their data, as recruiters seek thousands of skilled laborers to work in Israel.
/ Diaa Hadid/NPR
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Diaa Hadid/NPR
At a registration center in Lucknow, Indian men submit their data, as recruiters seek thousands of skilled laborers to work in Israel.

India is now one of the biggest customers of Israeli weaponry.

Many Hindu nationalists in India see the two countries as ideologically aligned, and like it that way.

"I love India — I love Israel," says Manoj Sharma, a 26-year-old carpenter who says he has been waiting two days in line to register in Lucknow.

Sharma identifies himself as a supporter of Indian Prime Minister Narendra Modi, a Hindu nationalist who has bought the country even closer to Israel during his decade as prime minister.

Sharma says he himself is even willing to fight for Israel against a common enemy.

"Hamas killed innocent people. It was wrong," he says. "Palestinians have lost their chance to work in Israel."

He says Indians can do it now.

Alon Avital contributed reporting from Israel.

Copyright 2024 NPR. To see more, visit https://www.npr.org.

Omkar Khandekar
Diaa Hadid
Diaa Hadid chiefly covers Pakistan and Afghanistan for NPR News. She is based in NPR's bureau in Islamabad. There, Hadid and her team were awarded a Murrow in 2019 for hard news for their story on why abortion rates in Pakistan are among the highest in the world.