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30 Apr 2024

Swetasree Ghosh Roy, The Diplomat

India can do more to protect workers in war zones

When 65 Indian construction workers landed in Israel on April 2 to start jobs once taken by Palestinians, they were flying into a firestorm. Eleven days after their arrival, Iran launched hundreds of drones and missiles on Tel Aviv and other Israeli cities...

Two days after the Iranian attack, India halted the dispatch of a second batch of workers. Yet the fate of 18,000 Indian caregivers and agricultural workers already working in Israel hangs in the balance with fears that the conflict might intensify.

The government advisory to temporarily halt sending workers to Israel has been roundly criticized by policy experts for being poorly planned and bereft of any “moral justification,” especially when tensions in the Middle East were bound to escalate. The Israel-India labor agreement was signed in November, more than a month after the latest round of hostilities broke out.

It’s not only the Middle East where Indian workers are in the firing line. Reports of at least 30 Indians joining the ranks of the Russian army as “helpers” and some subsequently being pushed as combatants in the war against Ukraine also exposes the lack of a coherent policy around Indian labor in conflict zones.

At the heart of the current problem is India’s deepening unemployment problem. While 6.6 percent of Indians in urban areas are unemployed, 17 percent of those under age 29 are without jobs, reflecting the country’s so-called economic performance as one of jobless growth...

The Indian authorities should eschew their piecemeal stand that they often take when migrant workers find themselves in crisis situations abroad.

Labor migration occurs in the most extreme cases – people go beyond national borders when faced with little or no means to earn a decent income at home. The government could do more than simply issuing routine advisories when conflicts break out in labor-seeking countries.