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Labor and the Bibi-Modi “Bromance”

 Labor and the Bibi-Modi “Bromance”
The Israel-India worker deal resembles British indenture.

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.

On December 12, a week before Modi and Netanyahu’s phone call, India joined 152 other nations in the UN to demand an “immediate humanitarian ceasefire” in Gaza. This was a change for the Modi administration, which had abstained from joining the vast majority of Global South nations who called for a ceasefire in October. But as a whole, India’s current position on Israel-Palestine lies in stark contrast to that of other Global South democracies like Brazil and South Africa, both vocal supporters of Palestine. Since coming to power in 2014, the Modi government has reversed India’s stance in the international arena, which until 1992 had no formal diplomatic relations with Israel. Indeed, what has been referred to as the “Bibi-Modi bromance” marks a radical shift in postcolonial Indian foreign policy away from solidarity with the Palestinian self-determination struggle. Netanyahu has used this newly cozy relationship with India as something of a crutch. In December 2023, as the death toll in Gaza surpassed fifteen thousand, he reached out to Modi to, no doubt, remind him of the “strategic partnership” that they had built together since 2014.

India’s feverish stockpiling of labor for export to Israel has been the most prominent recent result of that partnership. In the states of Haryana, Bihar and Uttar Pradesh, where unemployment rates for young men, especially since the pandemic, remain high, centralized, government-led recruitment drives are advertising construction work in Israel which will pay more than the jobs in Saudi Arabia, the United Arab Emirates (UAE), and Qatar typically on offer. Seeking to recruit groups of workers by the thousands, governments in both states have been offering signing bonuses on top of the promised wages. In one recent drive in the city of Lucknow, the state government of Uttar Pradesh issued a broad public call for applicants, promising a 15,000 rupee bonus for successful candidates which would be transferred to the worker’s employer in Israel and then paid out to the worker “at the end of his tenure.” In an unusual stipulation, workers must sign “mandatory contracts” of no less than one year, and in keeping with Israel’s existing temporary immigration program, their work and residency in the country are capped at a maximum of 63 months.

Some opposition political parties and civil society organizations are fiercely opposed both to the deal and to any dealings with Israel. In February, the citizens’ group Indians for Palestine publicly stated that it was ethically “objectionable” to replace Palestinian workers with Indian workers. That same month, the Water Transport Workers Federation of India, a union representing over 3,500 dockworkers, announced that it would blockade ports in an act of solidarity to stop the shipment of arms through the Indian ocean to Israel. “We decided then that we would do our bit and not handle any weapon-laden cargo, which will go on to assist Israel to kill more women and children as we are seeing and reading every day in the news,” said the union’s secretary, Narendra Rao.

Indian unions and labor federations have also criticized the Indian government for its lack of concern for workers’ safety. The head of the Steel, Metal and Engineering Workers Federation of India called the plan “a very wrong decision by the Indian government to send its workers to work in such dangerous working conditions. There are serious safety concerns for workers in Israel right now.” In a public statement opposing the recruitment plan a federation of ten major unions in India representing tens of millions of workers, also called attention to the government’s hypocrisy. “Nothing could be more immoral and disastrous for India than the said ‘export’ of workers to Israel,” it declared. “That India is even considering ‘exporting’ workers to an active war zone shows the manner in which it has dehumanized and commodified Indian workers.” These Indian unions are following the path of major Palestinian unions, which have called for international labor solidarity to oppose the Modi plan.

Bilateral mobility agreements like the India-Israel deal are nothing new. Across the world, more and more states—Singapore, Bahrain, Canada, and the United States among many others—have begun to employ temporary, closed-term migrant labor programs. In the Middle East, autocratic Gulf states have long relied on such schemes. And in addition to contracting Palestinian labor, Israel has long relied on Thai, Filipino, Nepali, and Indian workers, too. Typically, these states have two goals. On the one hand, they want to preserve the ethnic composition of a privileged national citizenry. On the other, they need large amounts of cheapened laborers, especially in the domestic, construction and retail sectors, to grow. Contract labor schemes have allowed them to do both: with them, states can access a mass supply of workers without having to grant any of them citizenship. Israel, for example, offers five-year, temporary immigration channels for migrant workers, but gives them no option for family reunification or naturalization.

The ease with which the spigot of temporary labor can be adjusted has allowed states to fine-tune the flow of labor in, carefully calibrating the supply to ensure workers never gain too much power. In the mid-2000s, for example, the Emirati government’s concerns about the growing strength of economic and political claims by Indian workers—who by then had come to represent an overwhelming majority of the migrant workforce in the country, particularly in construction—resulted in new rules requiring employers to source their workforces from no fewer than three different countries. Not only has this allowed the UAE to play remittance-seeking, labor-sending countries off each other and diminish their efforts to protect their citizens’ rights abroad; it has also allowed employers to sow ethnonational divisions between migrant workers through differential wage rates and other tactics, preventing any single group of migrant workers with common cause from becoming a significant political bloc in the country.

The recent recruitment drives in India bear clear traces of this strategy. As hundreds of Indian YouTube videos and recruitment ads touting work in Israel make explicit, only “Hindu workers” should apply. “All the workers know,” explained one YouTuber to Haaretz, that Muslims will not be considered for the work visas—meaning that the thirty-eight million Muslims in Uttar Pradesh, one of the main suppliers of construction labor to Israel, are shut out. Why? The Israeli government fears the potential for pro-Palestine solidarity among Muslim Indian workers. This no doubt helps explain why Israel has turned to India first as the source for its labor shortage problem, as opposed to its Muslim-majority neighboring states of Bangladesh or Pakistan. The Indian government, for its part, would surely deny that they are implementing a Hindus-only recruitment drive. But as India continues to move toward becoming an ethnostate much like Israel itself, the Modi government’s Islamophobic kinship with Netanyahu’s regime is making itself evident.

Securitized borders and temporary immigration channels tend to produce thriving predatory migration industries that extract money from border-crossing workers. Israel’s work permit system—which, until a Supreme Court challenge in 2020, bound Palestinian workers to a single employer in Israel—has led to illegal permit-selling by employers and brokers, who regularly extract several months of Palestinian workers’ salaries as payment. The new wave of Indian migrants will cost Israeli employers more in salaries than Palestinian workers, but employers are also being insulated from the true costs of recruiting internationally: the friendly bilateral mobility agreement ensures that Indian migrants have to pay for their own flights and housing. Migrants from Uttar Pradesh, a state currently ruled by an ultranationalist government even further to the right than Modi’s and the largest low-wage migrant-sending state in the country, will likely provide the bulk of Indian workers to Israel. As with other poor northern states in India, Uttar Pradesh has weak government oversight and protections for transnational workers. When state recruitment ends in the coming years, workers will be forced to rely on the existing network of informal recruiters and moneylenders across the state who are known to charge migrating construction workers up to a year of their salary in illegal fees to gain access to jobs abroad.

This is not the first time in history when Palestinian workers have been replaced by Indian workers. In the wake of the 1967 Arab-Israeli war, growing fears of mass political uprisings led the Gulf states to recruit Indian and Filipino workers—a less militant group, they believed, whose political struggles were seen to lay outside the region. During the Gulf countries’ construction boom of the 1970s, the spread of left-wing and antimonarchist movements among Egyptian, Syrian and Palestinian migrant workers led a number of states, including the United Arab Emirates, to replace their foreign Arab workers with migrants from South and South East Asia. And in 1991, amidst the first Gulf War, hundreds of thousands of Palestinian workers, deemed to be sympathetic to Saddam Hussein’s Ba’athist regime, were forced to leave Gulf countries such as Kuwait.

The Modi-Netanyahu labor deal has an even older historical predecessor: British indenture. In the nineteenth century, as chattel slavery came to an end in Britain, indentured labor from countries such as India and China was introduced as a more “humane” alternative. The practice was abolished in 1920, but a century later, traces of its institutional legacy live on in migrant labor programs. Indian and other Asian workers were desirable across the Gulf region because they were seen as politically “docile,” a powerful racial trope with particular roots in nineteenth-century indenture practices. They were also desirable because, as sociologist Andrzej Kapiszewski notes, “Asian governments became often involved in the recruitment and placement of their workers, facilitating their smooth flow to the Gulf countries.” The governments of India, Pakistan, and the Philippines, lured by the healthy remittances promised to them, were all too eager to help in the importation of their workers.

In India these recruitment efficiencies existed precisely because state and private recruitment networks were able to operate in the infrastructural grooves cut by imperial Britain’s development of an overseas recruitment regime it established through indentured labor. Today the Indian state’s capacity to rapidly gather, skills test and bulk hire tens of thousands of laborers from across the north of the country draws on a palimpsest of the same colonial racial apparatus: one which will funnel departing workers largely from oppressed caste communities through colonial “Protector of Emigrants” offices that still operate in the same ports, such as Mumbai and Kolkata, from which indentured workers embarked in the nineteenth century.

In the short term, Israel seems to be staking its development on the cooperation of India and other foreign governments in sending them labor. Just in February, the Israeli government announced a 2.5-billion-shekel housing program for the upcoming year. In addition to increasing the quota for foreign workers in construction, the government is also moving to expedite permitting processes for large-scale construction projects. It has also announced new programs to expand the use of less labor-intensive industrial techniques like modular construction methods, and to promote the entry of more Israeli citizens—in addition to more migrant workers—into the construction sector.

In the meantime, the livelihoods and survival of formerly employed Palestinians hang in the balance. Ineligible for the unemployment benefits that Israeli citizens receive in times of security lockdowns, they’ve have had to scramble to find other options (unsurprisingly, Netanyahu’s cynical request to the UAE to pay “unemployment stipends” to barred Palestinian workers was rebuffed). Some have been trying to cancel precious Israeli work permits in an attempt to collect their pensions prematurely. Others in the West Bank have had to take jobs building and working in Israeli settlements—settlements which international law has deemed illegal—since the continued labor of Palestinian workers there was approved by the Israeli government. Indeed, for the contractors operating in the West Bank, the expulsion of Palestinian construction labor from other parts of Israel has been a boon.

There have been some talks about whether to tentatively allow some Palestinian workers to return, some of them led by Israeli security officials concerned about the potential threat produced by large-scale unemployment in the Occupied Territories. But they have been met with opposition. The goal, said Idan Roll of the centrist Yesh Atid Party, should instead be to “wean the Israeli economy off Palestinian workers.” For both sides of the debate, the problem is essentially a matter of colonial strategy: either work permits will pacify the Palestinian population, or they will be too risky. Israel’s stopgap solution, importing less politically volatile Indian workers as a rapid-response labor force, draws from the two-hundred-year-old colonial logic of British indenture.

The Modi government wagers that the fate of the construction workers headed to Israel in the midst of a brutal war is of as little concern to the wider public as that of the Palestinian workers they are replacing. But India and Israel’s collusion has not come without significant resistance, despite unprecedented levels of repression. As the February blockade shows, progressive unions in India have made solidarity with Palestinian freedom a central pillar of their actions. Others have directly compared Israel’s contracting of Indian labor to the history of indenture. Organizing across the often chasmic gaps of nationality, race, caste, language, or religion is difficult—but by no means impossible. If modern states have ensured the brutal subjugation of both populations living, and workers laboring, in their borders through colonial means, then the resistance to those tactics must be anticolonial in response.