The death of an Indian worker illustrates Israel’s long exploitation of foreign labourers

An Indian labourer in Israel was killed and several other migrant workers injured on March 4, 2024, in a missile attack launched from Lebanon by Hamas-aligned Hezbollah.

They are not the first migrant workers in Israel to get caught up in the monthslong fighting. Dozens of other farmworkers, agricultural apprentices and caregivers from countries including Thailand, Nepal, Tanzania, Cambodia, the Philippines, Sri Lanka and Moldova were murdered or taken hostage during the Hamas attack of October 7.

The sizable number of non-Israeli workers affected by the current war has surprised some onlookers while shining a light on Israel’s reliance on temporary migrant workers.

But as researchers who study the proliferation of migrant workers around the world, we know how labour migration programs have transformed nearly all societies, including Israel’s. The long-running Israeli-Palestinian conflict has shaped Israel’s migrant worker history – and has contributed to the globalisation of the workforce in the Middle East.

Global story

The initial recruitment of overseas workers to Israel, which began as early as the 1970s, followed a post-World War II trend that saw higher-income countries – such as the US, France and West Germany – sign labour migration recruitment agreements with poorer nations.

These poorer countries, which at the time included Mexico, Spain and Turkey, among others, overcame an initial reluctance to lose part of their populace and began to see emigration as a strategy for modernisation. The idea was that emigrants could learn modern farming or industrial skills overseas, while sending money back to boost development in their home communities.

In the 1970s and 1980s, many South and Southeast Asian countries began to promote the export of migrant workers as a key piece of their economic development strategies. At the same time, receiving countries became hooked on the idea of a flexible, temporary labour force that would not inflame anti-immigrant sentiment as much as more settled migrants seemingly did.

Israel’s relationship with Thai workers came initially by way of the United States’ support for the 1979 peace agreement between Israel and Egypt. The US government recruited Thai workers who had once worked on Vietnam War-era US military bases in northeastern Thailand to help build a new air force base in Israel.

The arrival of the Thai migrant workers, along with Portuguese workers, prompted public controversy among Israeli lawmakers, trade unionists and the media about the creation of a split labour market, as research done by one of us has shown. Meanwhile, others worried that the workers’ presence cut against Zionist imperatives to guarantee a Jewish majority.

Attempting to resolve these contradictions, the Israeli government started to experiment with migration policies designed for a new category of workers – neither Jewish nor Palestinian – who were intended to remain separate from Israeli society.

A decade later, in a different political moment, these policy ideas would become concrete in a new category of person in Israel: the “foreign worker.”

A Thai worker picks Etrogs, a citrus fruit used in rituals during the upcoming Jewish holiday of Sukkot, in a grove in the southern community of Nave, near the border with the Gaza Strip and Egypt in October 2014. Credit: Reuters.

Growing recruitment

The Israeli-Palestinian conflict drove the “foreign worker” policy forward. Though Israel was founded on the ideology of “avoda ivrit,” or Hebrew labour, Israel’s occupation of the West Bank and Gaza since 1967 has led to the recruitment of hundreds of thousands of Palestinian workers, who became an attractive low-wage labour force.

They soon came to compose 7% of the workers in the Israeli labour market as a whole, 24% of workers in the agricultural sector and 60% in the construction sector.

The non-citizen Palestinian workers commuted daily from the West Bank and Gaza, controlled by a regime of permits and regulations.

When the first Palestinian uprising, or intifada, began in 1987, some members of the Israeli public came to see such workers as a security risk.

The 1993 Oslo Accords, which sought to foment “separation” between Israelis and Palestinians, further pushed Israel to minimise the dependency on non-citizen Palestinian workers.

To make up for the shortfall, Israeli employers convinced the government to vastly expand the recruitment of temporary workers to take their place. In addition to Thailand, countries including China, India, Nepal, the Philippines, Romania and Turkey spotted an opportunity and allowed Israeli employers to recruit within their borders. By 2003, migrant workers made up 10% of the labour force in Israel.

Creating marginal workers

Migrant workers in Israel, like their counterparts the world over, have long since been vulnerable to exploitation.

Many of their origin countries did not demand a commitment to secure their citizens’ rights in the form of a bilateral labour recruitment agreement. And workers migrating via private recruitment channels had to pay thousands of dollars in illegal “sign-up” fees, causing them to begin their journeys deep in debt.

Meanwhile, Israeli government policies have attempted to keep migrants outside of society by confining them to specific industries, obligating them to leave the country upon completion of their labour contract, excluding them from the public health system and prohibiting them from marrying or engaging in romantic relations while in Israel.

Authorities have paid little attention to labour standards, leaving farmworkers, for example, vulnerable to wage theft, terrible housing and exposure to pesticides without proper protection.

Under pressure from the US government and Israeli civil society, over the past decade Israel began to sign bilateral agreements with countries sending migrants. These eliminated exorbitant recruitment fees, even if they failed to meaningfully improve labour conditions.

Even so, the number of migrant workers has grown slowly but steadily. In 2022, a total of 73,000 migrants in Israel worked as caregivers, in addition to nearly 50,000 in the construction and agriculture sectors combined.

Yet, these migrants did not obviate the need to also have Palestinian labour in the mix. By October 7, 2023, about 100,000 Palestinian workers crossed the border daily from Gaza and the West Bank.

In harm’s way

Since October 7, Israeli authorities have ended those Palestinians’ work permits and tried to recruit thousands of new workers to the fields and construction sites to make up for the shortfall.

Malawi, a country that came to depend on migrants’ economic remittances decades before Thailand did, has sent 700 farmworkers and promises another 9,000 on the way – notwithstanding criticism from voices within the African nation itself.

In India, which had long sent caregivers to Israel, the government of Prime Minister Narendra Modi ignored internal criticism and sent Israel more workers in the aftermath of the October 7 attack, including Pat Nibin Maxwell, the man killed in the March 4 Hezbollah attack.

Workers like Maxwell are now being sent to work near the borders of Lebanon and Gaza, labouring in agricultural communities vulnerable to Hamas and Hezbollah attacks that have been depleted by the evacuation of Israeli residents.

Though foreign governments are able to guarantee their citizens few protections in Israel, thousands have queued up in their home countries in search of a contract.

Once in Israel, they join the vast majority of migrant workers who have elected to remain in the country despite the October 7 attack and its aftermath.

Like millions of migrant workers the world over in search of economic progress or survival, they have calculated, for now, that earning higher wages abroad is worth taking significant personal risks.

While helping keep the Israeli economy running during wartime, these migrant workers remain in the path of rockets – as the death of Pat Nibin Maxwell has illustrated.

Julie Weise is Associate Professor of History, University of Oregon.

Shahar Shoham is Doctoral Candidate in Global and Area Studies at the Institute for Asian and African Studies, Humboldt University of Berlin.

This article was first published on The Conversation.

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