Major trade unions in India have called on their government to scrap an agreement with Israel that will allow tens of thousands of Indian workers to replace Palestinian construction workers whose work permits have been revoked since the Israeli war on Gaza started.
The statement, released on behalf of the Centre of Indian Trade Unions (CITU), All India Trade Union Congress (AITUC), Indian National Trade Union Congress (INTUC), the BJP-affiliated Hind Mazdoor Sabha (HMS), and several other Indian union organisations, called for India’s trade union movements to show solidarity with Palestinian workers by refusing to replace them.
“Nothing could be more immoral and disastrous for India than the said ‘export’ of workers to Israel,” the group said in an open letter released 9 November.
“That India is even considering ‘exporting’ workers shows the manner in which it has dehumanized and commodified Indian workers.
“Such [a] step will amount to complicity on India’s part with Israel’s ongoing genocidal war against Palestinians and will naturally have adverse implications for Indian workers in the entire region.”
‘Nothing could be more immoral and disastrous for India than the said ‘export’ of workers to Israel’
– Indian unions’ statement
The announcement comes after Israel revoked the work permits of Palestinian workers after the 7 October attacks in which Hamas killed at least 1,300 Israelis and took over 200 people captive.
Israel has since imposed a total siege on the Gaza Strip and launched a relentless bombing campaign on the enclave, killing over 11,000 people, the vast majority children and women.
The statement follows a request to the Indian government by Israel’s construction sector to allow companies to hire up to 100,000 workers from India to replace 90,000 Palestinians who had lost their work permits, according to a report by Voice of America.
While the deal has yet to be implemented, it is just one example of deepening relations between Israel and India.
Stranded in Israel
On his visit to New Delhi in May, Israeli Foreign Minister Eli Cohen signed an agreement with his Indian counterpart, Subrahmanyam Jaishankar, to bring around 42,000 Indian workers to Israel, with 34,000 earmarked for construction and 8,000 in elder care.
In October, India abstained from casting a vote at the UN General Assembly for a resolution calling for an immediate and sustained “humanitarian truce”.
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India also abstained from a UN Human Rights Council resolution that called for a probe into alleged crimes committed during Israel’s brutal 11-day-military operation on the Gaza Strip in May 2021.
According to Israeli media, around 150,000 Palestinians from the occupied West Bank and Gaza work in Israel, mainly in construction.
Four months after Israel had launched offensive on Gaza in May 2021, Israeli authorities announced that they were going to allow thousands of Palestinians from Gaza to be employed in low-skilled jobs in Israel.
Such jobs have become a vital means of income for Palestinians living in the coastal enclave blockaded by Israel since 2007, crippling Gaza’s economy and cutting off most of its residents from the outside world.
Now, with the Erez crossing between Gaza and Israel closed since the war on Gaza began, a large number of Palestinian workers from Gaza have found themselves stranded in Israel after the abrupt cancellation of their work permits by the Coordination of Government Activities in the Territories (Cogat).
Thousands of them were detained by Israeli authorities following the attack on Israel.
Middle East Eye has spoken to a number of Palestinian workers who have since been released from detention. They confirmed reports of abuse and poor treatment, which included beatings, violent interrogations about Hamas, humiliation and a forced march back to Gaza on foot.
‘Cheap labour with no rights’
“We demand that the agreement with Israel to export Indian workers be scrapped immediately,” the Indian trade union statement continued.
“We demand an immediate halt to Israeli aggression against Palestine; end its occupation; we demand that the Palestinian right to a sovereign homeland be upheld.”
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The group also called for a boycott of Israeli products and for Indian workers to refuse to handle Israeli cargo.
The deal has been criticised within India’s parliament as well.
Writing on X, formerly Twitter, on 8 November, Saket Gokhale, an Indian MP and national spokesperson for the All India Trinamool Congress, said: “These Indian workers will be replacing Palestinians – which means they’ll be given the absolutely worst jobs that Israel’s apartheid regime was forcing Palestinians to do.
“Why is Israel asking India to send labourers instead of any other country?” Gokhale added, criticising India’s government for sending Indian workers abroad instead of creating job opportunities within the country.
“That’s because we are still seen by these countries as a ‘source of cheap labour with no rights.’”