x Abu Dhabi, UAESunday 23 July 2017

Respect for foreign workers starts with not labelling

Why does "worker" designate someone from Southeast Asia while "expatriate" is the term for a western professional? Aren't most people in the UAE both expatriates and workers?

It has been three months since I came to live in the Middle East. I've learned much about the region in that time, but I am still unable to find the cause of a common yet rarely discussed phenomenon in the United Arab Emirates - or more specifically in Abu Dhabi, where I currently live.

The UAE is a country composed of more than 80 per cent expatriates. The vast majority of these - around 75 per cent, according to some estimates - are South or Southeast Asians, and the rest are Westerners and other Arabs. Many of these expatriates have settled in the UAE for better jobs than in their home countries, or for a better life.

Despite these commonalities, however, people and much of the media often make a solid distinction between an "expatriate" and a "worker", with Westerners almost always referred to as the former, and Southeast Asians by the latter. As an Asian women living in the Middle East, I find this troubling.

It is true that many Westerners have jobs in offices, and it is also true that many Southeast Asians come to Abu Dhabi as labourers, working in construction or oil, retail or as home helpers. However, I believe that the general tendency of using two different words - expatriate and worker - according to pure nationality or race is wrong.

This phenomenon is particularly interesting to me because I have observed many similar occurrences in my home country, South Korea.

Growing up I noticed that Koreans would often treat foreigners differently according to their race. At some English academies, for instance, Korean job interviewers would hire white instructors over African-American instructors even if the whites had less-desirable qualifications. They would often rationalise this by saying Korean parents preferred white instructors teaching their children.

I recall a television documentary that made a similar point. Filming in the capital city of Seoul, producers recorded how Koreans imposed a doublestandard on foreigners, knowingly or not. While peopled voluntarily helped a lost Canadian, most ignored requests for assistance when the person asking for directions was an Indonesian man.

On what basis do people make distinctions among foreigners? Is it acceptable to judge people and treat them differently based on their skin colour? Although I was quite familiar with cases of racial stereotyping that happened in the United States, seeing such a phenomenon happen on the opposite side of the world made me realise the seriousness of this problem. In short, racial prejudice should be eliminated not only because it is harmful, but because it undermines the collective and cohesive development of society.

Ethnic prejudice has the tendency to create a false sense of superiority and inferiority. For example, in the case of UAE, calling someone an "expatriate" may give them a false sense of superiority over someone called a "worker". The fact is, both reside in the UAE by the invitation of the federal government, on the merits of their sponsorship for employment.

On the other hand, those being subjected to unnecessary discrimination might feel inferior due to ethnic prejudice. Three years ago when I was studying English at an academy, I met an African-American instructor who had graduated from a prestigious university. Having had a successful academic life he came to Korea to experience a new culture and to meet a new group of students. However, he said it did not take long to start feeling discriminated against. Some restaurant employees occasionally asked for his identification. In his eyes he was being singled out simply because of his skin colour.

When any society, whether it is my country or my adopted home, begins to practice such wrong-headed policies, people naturally associate lighter skin with positive images, creating a social perception that skin colour determines worth.

This is extremely dangerous because it may justify different or unfair treatment of entire groups of people, which ultimately strengthens racial discrimination.

We are living in the era of globalisation; nationality no longer matters to business. People in the UAE should be judged on ability alone - in the workplace, or at the coffee shop. To eradicate racial discrimination, therefore, we should first look at the labels we apply to people and ask whether these do more to separate us than unite us.


Gagyung Kim is a first year student at New York University Abu Dhabi.