Israel-bound Indian workers | Risking life for a living

In the gap between desperation and hope, thousands of aspirants from Uttar Pradesh and Haryana are applying for jobs in Israel, after the Indian government facilitated skilled labour making the journey. Mayank Kumar visits the second screening camp to talk to those who are willing to risk death to break the cycle of poverty 

January 27, 2024 01:35 am | Updated February 06, 2024 08:35 am IST

Job seekers queued up for the skill test for employment in Israel, during a recruitment camp at the ITI campus, in Lucknow.

Job seekers queued up for the skill test for employment in Israel, during a recruitment camp at the ITI campus, in Lucknow. | Photo Credit: The Hindu

On January 23, when the doors of the Ram temple in Ayodhya, Uttar Pradesh, were opened to the public a day after the consecration of the temple, and lakhs of people embarked on a spiritual journey, 40-year-old Surendra Singh, began a journey of a different kind. Leaving his home in Garhdiwala town, Hoshiarpur district, Punjab, he caught the Jammu Tawi-Kolkata Express to Lucknow in the hope of migrating across the seas, to Israel, for the economic security of his family. About 36 hours later, at the Industrial Training Institute, Lucknow, Singh, the son of a marginal farmer with only a half an acre of land to his name, believes he has crossed the preliminary hurdle. “I am confident that I have cleared the test,” he says, with a smile.

Singh is one of a little over 500 men — all bundled up with caps, mufflers, and jackets — who have shown up on the two-acre field of the institute, their shoulders drawn together from the cold, to register as candidates for the trade test to get temporary employment in Israel’s construction sector. ITI Aliganj, in Lucknow, has been designated the nodal centre for conducting the skill screening test in U.P., the second such in the country. About 4 kilometres away is the Raj Bhawan, the two-storeyed U.P. governor’s residence, with 15 bedrooms, ensconced in wooden-floor warmth.

On November 3, 2023, a little less than a month after Israel began attacks on Palestine, the Ministry of Skill Development and Entrepreneurship signed a three-year agreement with the Israeli government on the ‘Facilitation of the Temporary Employment of Indian Workers in Specific Labour Market Sectors (Construction and Care-giving) in the State of Israel’. Trade Unions were aghast that the government would wilfully send its citizens into a war zone. They claimed all protections accorded to Indians in areas of conflict had been suspended, and that workers would not be registered on the e-migrate portal run by the Ministry of External Affairs.

“For people like us, managing basic needs comes first. I desperately need a job. The salaries in India are so low,” says Singh, who has a higher-secondary school education. He is not aware of the intricacies of diplomacy, the details of foreign policy, or the complexity of the world’s geopolitics, he does know there is a war on in the area. “Suna hai (I have about it),” he says. He had worked in Qatar for three years as an iron-bender, sending back ₹30,000 every month, before COVID-19 hit and he had to come back. When he heard about the job vacancies in Israel over a YouTube channel, he decided to apply for the same job, in person.

Wars and words

Three months after Israel attacked Gaza, on January 21, the Palestinian health ministry declared that over 25,000 Palestinians, both civilians and Hamas fighters, had been killed. This included over 10,000 children.

In the third week of December, after a meeting between the National Skills Development Corporation (NSDC) and the Israeli government agency Population, Immigration and Border Authority (PIBA), the U.P. government put out advertisements for 10,000 jobs in Israel at a salary approximately between ₹1,36,000 and ₹1,37,000 per month, for Indian citizens between 21 and 45 years. “There are 3,000 positions for a shuttering carpenter, 3,000 for iron bending, 2,000 for ceramic tiling, and 2,000 for plastering,” says S.N. Nagesh, the assistant labour commissioner, Unnao district, who held press conferences and encouraged the media to publicise this. “A working understanding of English is required. There’s a high interest in these jobs,” he says, adding that roughly 5,000 workers applied during the online application process in U.P. He’s expecting more than an equal number at the walk-in interviews, between January 23 and 30.

In an unsigned notice, activists expressing alarm said, “Working in Israel an put your life in danger; 80-100 foreign workers have been killed and over 20 have been taken hostage.” It said that workers from outside of Israel were often mistreated and that that accessing healthcare there was difficult. It also went on to talk about the practicalities of living there, including the fact that costs were three times more than in India, with 1 kg of potatoes costing ₹120, 1 litre of milk ₹140, and toothpaste ₹380 per tube. Sensing people would still opt to go, it advised workers to talk to their families, and if they still opted to go, to get a clear break up of salary.

Job seekers filling forms at a registration counter.

Job seekers filling forms at a registration counter. | Photo Credit: The Hindu

The NSDC International is a not-for-profit public limited company in which the Government of India, through the Ministry of Skill Development and Entrepreneurship. holds a 49% stake. The organisation is facilitating recruitment, primarily in U.P. and Haryana.

At ITI, officials from NSDC are managing the logistics, while representatives from PIBA conduct the test. As he and the others wait to be led into the fall, they queue up outside in one of the four lines depending on their trade. Results from the screening camp, from January 23-30, will be declared on the last day. Singh says, “I was not allowed to participate in the Rohtak [in Haryana] recruitment drive, but here it is open to all.”

At the Rohtak recruitment drive, the first in the country, held between January 16-21, only residents of Haryana were allowed to take the test, leading to chaos with those from neighbouring States also showing up. This forced officials to request the U.P. centre to allow those will domicile certificates from other States also to be allowed to take the test.

Head, heart, and hearth

Unlike Singh who took the train, many applicants in U.P. were ferried to the ITI campus by the State government. Kanshi Ram, 22, who’s here from Anjan Shaheed village in Azamgarh district, for the job of an iron bender, says, “The Labour department officials of the district brought registered applicants like me by bus to Lucknow.”

Also read | Scrap deal to send workers to Israel: trade unions to Centre

In fact, after the ads were put out, the department was asked to reach out to workers. He says work in his village is irregular, and he is often not paid on time. With the recklessness of youth, he says he is not worried about the war. “I am thinking of the money I will earn: 15 times what I now get.” Then, with the deep understanding of his circumstances: “People like us are at war with society, and internally with our souls, from the time of our birth.”

Between 500 and 1,000 aspirants show up each day, at the week-long camp to recruit skilled labour for Israel’s construction sector.

Between 500 and 1,000 aspirants show up each day, at the week-long camp to recruit skilled labour for Israel’s construction sector. | Photo Credit: SANDEEP SAXENA

Ram is worried at the competition as the crowd swells. The family has no land, a currency that still drives India’s rural economy. It is January 24, and there are about 1,000 candidates. He had worked with a local mason in his hometown earning ₹6,000 to ₹8,000 a month. “I cannot watch my father struggle in his 50s pulling a rickshaw. If I send back home half of the salary, our situation will improve in six months,” he calculates. In his mind, this means as a pucca house of three rooms, a dream his father envisaged decades ago. U.P., a state of roughly 240 million people, the most populous in India, had a per capita income of ₹70,792 in 2021-22 as per government data.

Most aspirants at the recruitment centre are from the Dalit or Extremely Backward sections, sitting at the bottom of the social and economic pyramid. Bhavish Goswami, 25, lost his parents roughly a decade ago in a road accident. “I hope of making a better life in Israel; I have nothing to lose; there’s no one behind me,’‘ says Goswami, from Jhansi, who has an ITI degree that qualifies him to be a fitter, and is standing in the xx queue. He is aware of the conflict in Israel, but cannot see a jump is salary in India: “Otherwise why would anyone go into a conflict zone?”. He worked at a Faridabad-based New Allenberry Works, a gear manufacturer that has a presence across the world. “I got ₹20,000 a month, quite a low wage,” he says.

Testing trust

The NSDC brochure assures candidates that they will be employed by a company in Israel. In a bid to silence the anxiety of applicants over the raging Israel-Palestine conflict it added, “Strict measures are in place to safeguard residents and employees during periods of heightened tension. The presence of over thousands of foreign candidates in the country proves the fact that many individuals continue to work and live in Israel without any major disruptions.” Of the 18,000 Indian citizens in Israel at the time the conflict broke out, only about only about 1,300 opted to return as a part of Operation Ajay that took place in mid-October, to get Indians in Israel out.

At the testing centre, a hall is converted into a makeshift reception area, large enough to accommodate 100-odd aspirants. “Walk-in people turned up in large numbers on January 24, day two of the exercise,” says Mazhar Aziz Khan, a senior faculty member of ITI, the coordinator of the nodal centre. “Only 596 candidates had registered on the NSDC portal for Wednesday, but at least double the number of candidates turned up, after they heard that walking in was an option.” This has made the job of managing candidates difficult for NSDC officials and the ITI college staff. There are between two and four people managing outside; in the reception area there are about 10; and registration area there are eight desks manned by two people.

NSDC officials are entrusted with the administrative side of the process: receiving a form of basic details filed by the aspirants, sending candidates to the registration room after verification of documents, formally registering them at eight desks. To qualify, candidates must have no previous employment in Israel and no immediate family residing or employed in Israel. They then proceed to the exam room of their respective trade.

Abhay Pandey, 30, from Azamgarh, who appeared for the test as a ceramic tiler, says, laughing slightly, “Those eight minutes at the exam station were actually the most comfortable.” He had spent four hours in the registration process. Pandey was given tools to cut, grind, shape, fix, and finish the tiles on floors, walls.

In the plastering room, with 12 stations, each fixed with two brick walls in an L shape, at least 20 tools are available for candidates to demonstrate their skills. At the site of the iron-bending exam room, examiners at 10 tables ask aspirants to bend iron into shapes — a chair, a square — using a tool, tape measure, and wire clipper. Candidates are expected to efficiently mark, cut, bend, place, and fix reinforcement bars at desired locations using hand and power tools within a specified time and defined tolerance limit.

The chorus of activists’ voices won’t die down though. “In the middle of the war between Hamas and Israel, this recruitment exercise is fishy, and explodes our claims of providing better job opportunities at home,” says Chandershekhar, State general secretary, All India Trade Union Congress (AITUC), U.P. unit. He is worried by the fact that costs from the pre-joining medical test at ₹5,500 to the flight ticket ₹25,000-26,000, must be paid by the candidate. NSDC will also bill selected candidates ₹10,000 as processing fee.

The eight-minute tile-laying test for those hoping to earn a living in Israel.

The eight-minute tile-laying test for those hoping to earn a living in Israel. | Photo Credit: SANDEEP SAXENA

“It shows the gap between the wages of countries like India and a developed nation like Israel,” says Prof. Manindra Nath Thakur, a social scientist in New Delhi’s Jawaharlal Nehru University. “It will be worth exploring if the government of India negotiated for proper wages and working conditions for Indian labour.”

Singh says when he was bending iron for the test, he thought about his two-year-old daughter. “I want her to have a good education. I don’t want her to struggle like me,” he says. “I finished in half the time allocated.” He will head back to his village at night, and wait for the results.

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