Use + Remix

Indian migrant workers have a long history of repression and poor treatment. In 2024, nothing has changed.

The willingness of Indian workers to sign up to work in a conflict zone such as Israel is testimony to their acute financial distress. : Israel Defense Forces CCBY2.0 Generic The willingness of Indian workers to sign up to work in a conflict zone such as Israel is testimony to their acute financial distress. : Israel Defense Forces CCBY2.0 Generic

Indian migrant workers have a long history of repression and poor treatment. In 2024, nothing has changed.

In the award-winning Sea of Poppies, Indian novelist Amitav Ghosh immortalised the journey of 19th century indentured labour migrants— called “girmitiyas“—aboard a ship to Mauritius during the heyday of British colonialism.

It’s 2024. Another group of migrant workers trudges through New Delhi international airport carrying cheap plastic suitcases, wearing clothing bought off roadside flea markets.

They are the new age “girmitiyas” in search of a promised El Dorado.

More than 60 Indian construction workers left for Israel in early April amid mounting concerns for their safety and rising opposition from trade unions in India, but to no avail.

The low cost Azerbaijan Airways flight, which took these worker armies to the outskirts of Tel Aviv, was jam-packed. Some workers were shunted off to an Ethiopian Airways flight which took an even more circuitous route to the promised land.

These workers travelled despite their government having warned Indians that Israel is now a war zone and it’s best to avoid any travel there.

In March, the Indian government advised Indians in Israel to move to safer locations following the killing of migrant worker Pat Nibin Maxwell.

But India’s worker-migrants have kept marching.

When Israel’s war on Palestine erupted last October, Israel cancelled the permits of Palestinian workers, and sought to replace them with as many as 100,000 migrant workers from countries like India, continuing an agreement between the two governments.

While Israel’s recruitment of workers in a conflict zone is worrying, far worse is India’s willingness to send its workers into the line of fire.

More than 18,000 Indians, mostly care workers, already work in Israel. Another 6,000  were to join them in April. Some reports indicate that the travel plans for the remaining are on hold.

The motivations of the Indian government — which actively facilitated the recruitment of Indian workers to Israel under its National Skill Development Corporation — come into question.

The answer can be found in India’s strained relationship with its migrant workers — both under British colonialism and after independence.

Labour migration’s troubled history 

After the first steps were taken toward the  abolition of slavery in the 19th century, Britain recruited more than 1 million workers from colonial India to work in sugar, coffee, rubber, tea and cotton plantations, in laying railway tracks and in mining, in colonies across the globe, from the Caribbean, to the Pacific as well as in India itself.

The indentured workers entered a contract for three to five years. They would be advanced a certain amount of money, and at the end entitled to free passage home.

Across the great Gangetic plains, thousands of agricultural workers in economic distress joined the sea voyages, part of the system that continued until 1917. To the government, they came to be known as “coolies”.

While the workers were supposed to be subjects of the British Indian government, in reality plantation lobbies and commercial interests had considerable say in the system. From the moment they signed up for indentureship, the workers were subjected to multiple authorities, including the labour recruiter, the agent, the ship’s captain and eventually the plantation owner.

Plantation work and other work was often risky and backbreaking. The presence of single women was  considered ‘immoral’, leading to calls by Indian nationalists to demand an abolition of the system.

Some commentators have termed indentureship a “new system of slavery“, while others argue that indentureship was better than the life of poverty and hunger they left behind in debt-ridden United Provinces or modern day Bihar.

Between 1914 and 1918, more than 500,000 Indian signed up as non-combatants in World War One, working in the medical, ordnance and transport services, as grass cutters, blacksmiths, veterinary personnel and in various other jobs that need to be done in and around a regiment.

These included porters recruited from prisons as well as young men signing up to the Indian Porter Corps and Indian Labour Corps from United Provinces, Bihar, Assam, Bengal, Orissa, Burma and the North Western Frontier Province–much of it the same catchment area which supplied the indentured workers.

More than 17,000 Indian non-combatants were killed in the World War One. The wounded were racially segregated for treatment, which was not up to the standard of care for the British.

Much like indentured workers who were denied their rights as sovereign British-Indian subjects, or the workers shipped out during the World War One, the migrant workers in Israel will be navigating work amidst an ongoing war and a newly developing crisis with Iran, with no safety net in place.

A crisis of the present 

As for the modern-day labourers, their willingness to sign up to work in a conflict zone such as Israel is testimony to their acute financial distress.

A recent International Labour Organization  report shows that total unemployed youth in India almost doubled from 35.2 percent in 2000 to 65.7 percent in 2022.

The COVID lockdown of 2020 and the spectacular distress of migrant workers, employed in various unorganised sectors ranging from agriculture to construction, showed the precarious nature of their employment and their flimsy incomes.

Construction workers selected for jobs in Israel were quoted in the media as saying that despite the obvious dangers of their job, the payment was too lucrative to turn down. For many, it was almost ten times what they make in a month. For others, devoid of any safety nets, their existing jobs also leave them vulnerable.

Two Indian workers recruited under false pretences but made to work with the Russian military were killed in the past two months, while reportedly 100 like them continue to work in Russia, having migrated through an agent.

Although not in a conflict zone, various Gulf countries, including Qatar, have been criticised for large numbers of migrant worker deaths — especially in the lead up to the FIFA World Cup in 2022.

Between 2014 and 2022, 2,400 Indian nationals were reported to have died in Qatar, falling victim to harsh working conditions and unfavourable laws, including the now-scrapped Kafala system.

Families claim  the only time the Indian government steps in to help migrant workers and their families is when their bodies have to be returned home. The case of Pat Nibin Maxwell was no different.

Maxwell travelled to work in Israel through a recruitment agency, unlike the ones now being recruited through direct government intervention in Haryana and Uttar Pradesh.

The Indian Embassy’s first intervention in his life was in his death, as it was for Hemil Mangukiya and Mohammed Asfan in Russia.

Meanwhile, as their families grieve, five other Indian states are keen on joining the recruitment process.

Postcolonial India does not seem any better than its colonial avatar in caring for its migrant workers. The state retreats from its obligations of security and protection of its citizens, this time, outside its borders.

Samata Biswas is Assistant Professor of English at The Sanskrit College and University, Kolkata and a member of Calcutta Research Group (CRG).

Originally published under Creative Commons by 360info™.

Are you a journalist? Sign up for our wire service