A job in a warzone or unemployment at home

Indian diplomatic missions need to closely monitor the security situation and assess the threat perceptions to its communities

By Manjari Singh
Published: Thursday 25 April 2024
Photo for representation: iStock

Nation-making is a tough business. Israel should know.

In response to growing labour demand in Israel and to deepen their political relationship, India and Israel signed an agreement in May 2023 for 42,000 Indians to head to the Jewish state to work in construction and nursing.

The move was widely reported by Indian and international media as one that didn't account for the safety and security of its workers. And that was before October 7.

The ongoing Israel-Hamas conflict that exploded in October resulted in Israel banning more than 90,000 Palestinians workers — who formed the backbone of Israel's construction industry — to be replaced by workers from India, Sri Lanka and Uzbekistan.

India signed a deal a month after the outbreak of hostilities to allow the emigration of Indian workers to an active conflict zone.

Against the backdrop of an ongoing war, with tens of thousands of civilian deaths, there are well-founded fears that India's agreement with Israel may come at a heavy price.

As Israel finds itself in the middle of another crisis after Iran's missile attack, an increasingly urgent question for India to consider is the safety of its migrant workers.

The agreement seems to be a case of putting the cart before the horse: a knee-jerk response to maintain bilateral relations and an opportunity to ameliorate India's ongoing unemployment crisis.

Government schemes such as Atmanirbhar Bharat Rojgar Yojana, Pradhan Mantri Rojgar Protsahan Yojana, Mahatma Gandhi National Rural Employment Guarantee Act, Pradhan Mantri Garib Kalyan Rojgar Abhiyaan and other schemes to address the unemployability in the country have generated only meagre wages.

The statistics are worrying: the India Employment Report 2024 revealed that the number of educated unemployed youth had nearly doubled to 65.7 percent in 2022 from 35.2 percent in 2000. The report also noted an increase in self-employment and widespread livelihood insecurity, marked by a skills deficit which reduced chances of employability.

More than 10 percent of Indians between 15 and 29 years were unemployed during 2022-23.

In contrast, lucrative job opportunities, skill development and payment packages offered abroad, including the conflict-prone Middle East nations and the oil-rich states of the Gulf, compels workers to migrate. This makes it all the more imperative to institute safeguards to secure the welfare and well-being of workers going to conflict zones.

The agreement between the Ministry of Skill Development and Entrepreneurship (MSDE), India and Israel's Population and Immigration Authority (PIBA) was signed in November. A few weeks later, PIBA had conducted a meeting with the National Skill Development Corporation (NSDC) to streamline the process of recruitment.

The NSDC worked with the governments of Uttar Pradesh and Haryana to initiate recruitment processes, especially in the construction industry.

Among India's various agreements is listed the protocol agreements between India's MSDE and Israel regarding mobility frameworks between the two countries to facilitate worker movement under the NSDC, but these remain unspecified by the latter. 

The question of accountability for the safety of Indian migrant workers remains one of passing the buck.

India has already issued a no-travel advisory to Israel and Iran as both nations are in an active military standoff.

Indian expatriates play a formidable role in the country's global supply chain aspirations which is driven by demand, demography, and drive. Labour migration has been one of the significant features of the last few decades.

Workers who move to countries requiring emigration clearance due to their unconducive labour laws are required to register themselves under the Indian government's e-Migrate portal, instituted since 2015 by the Ministry of External Affairs, which offers insurance under the Pravasi Bharatiya Bhim Yojana and other protections.

Indian labour unions have raised concerns over the India-Israel agreement as a violation of India's emigration rules that may endanger worker safety and be a potential threat to life in any active conflict or conflict-prone region such as Israel.

According to India's Emigration Act of 1983, no Indian can migrate for work unless they obtain Emigration Check Required (ECR) status from the Indian authorities.

However, as the number of conflicts reduced over the years after the signing of peace treaties between some Arab states and Israel, to avoid inconvenience for the migrants, the GoI exempted certain countries from ECR list by October 1, 2007, including Israel.

Israel's membership to the Organisation for Economic Cooperation and Development (OECD) protocol is more binding and protective of foreign worker's rights, their safety and security. Israel is already bound by OECD's Employment Protection Act regarding labour rights and provides them protection, social security and health insurance.

Around 14,000 Indian nurses and caregivers employed in Israel have not returned to India or requested government agencies for assistance despite the active conflict since October 2023. This was confirmed by the Kerala government agency responsible for expat affairs. Most nurses in the caregiving sector are hired from Kerala.

Workers continue to face issues such as inadequate social safety nets and are vulnerable to employer exploitation, escalation of violence and lack of legal protection. Some of these aspects were exposed when Qatar was preparing to host the FIFA World Cup 2022. Workers' rights were severely violated and the emirate was criticised the world over.

Around 8.5-9 million Indian expatriates are working in the Gulf countries, of which the majority are employed as support staff and caregivers in hospitality industries, oil refineries, construction and service sectors such as drivers. The roles of Indian migrants have been diversified in the wake of the Gulf economies choosing to move beyond their oil dependence.

This has been made possible with India's strategic partnership with some of the regional powers in the Gulf. By the same standards, owing to India bolstering its relations with Israel to strategic partnership level in July 2017, the decision to send labour to that country stems from the need to increase New Delhi's engagement with Tel Aviv.

Domestic workers, for instance, in most of the Gulf Arab countries are not included under the foreign labour laws and thus are vulnerable to exploitation by employers.

Likewise, in the event of exacerbation of conflict, evacuation of huge worker populations becomes a daunting task for the government. It is time that the government invests in proper streamlined evacuation policies and must continuously monitor the situations in these countries.

There have been many instances when India's evacuation drive has been successful yet done hastily and the government has been caught off-guard such as during the Kuwait Crisis of 1990s, Lebanon in 2006, Syria and Libya in 2011, South Sudan in 2013, the Yemen and Iraq crisis of 2015, and Congo crisis of 2006 and 2017.

Despite many efforts, Indian diplomatic missions need to closely monitor the security situation and assess the threat perceptions to its communities. India already uses its diplomatic channels, consular assistance, logistical planning, coordinates with international agencies and countries, and communicates with its citizens. This was seen most recently during the Afghanistan and Ukraine crisis.

However, given the scale of work-related outmigration, more effective and dedicated means need to be employed to safeguard the workers in such regions. Coordinated usage of technology and digital means under the aegis of the Ministry of Skill Development and Entrepreneurship to monitor its workers can be a step forward in this regard.

Manjari Singh is assistant professor at Amity Institute of International Studies, Amity University, Noida. Her interests include contemporary Middle East, India-Middle East relations, India-Gulf relations, India's national security and sustainable development. She is author of India and the Gulf: A Security Perspective (New Delhi: KW Publishers) and co-authored Persian Gulf 2018: India's Relations with the Region (Singapore: Palgrave Macmillan).

Originally published under Creative Commons by 360info.

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