I was doing reasonably well at my place of work in India. We were happy in our little flat in noisy, polluted Mumbai. The three-hour journey, to and fro from work, did not faze us. Then, my husband got this irresistible job offer from Dubai!
I joined him eight months ago, bang in the middle of Dubai's terribly long summer. I just knew I would land a challenging job within a month. After all, I was this competent high achiever! Besides, life would be better there if not at par with India. After all, Dubai is 'phoren' and the land of no income tax.
Today, I am grappling with the distasteful task of job-hunting in the Middle East. One of the popular ways of doing this is through the famous Gulf Appointments. It was here that I first came across advertisements like 'Wanted HR Manager -- US/UK/SA/EUR/NZL Only.'
I was shocked. Why not just say: 'Wanted HR Manager -- No Asians Please. We only want to hire white-skinned people'.
I spent the first two months receiving calls from agents who offered jobs with meagre salaries. Wake up and smell the coffee, I was told -- Asians come cheap.
There is a clear disparity in wages and perks given to people of different nationalities doing the same job. A friend of mine works for one of the finest hotels in the world. She is Asian, so she stays in a campus built for Asian employees in an industrial area. White employees doing the same job are entitled to accommodation in the city.
My husband was the only person I could vent my frustrations on. The poor man was subjected to constant tirades on how this was the most humiliating experience of my life and how shocked I was at this blatant display of racism. I wondered about the future of organisations that, even today, hire on the basis of colour instead of competence. To advertise in this manner in a national newspaper was, I thought, a blatant slap on the face.
This attitude was not limited to the labour market.
Take entertainment. My husband and I enjoy going out. What we did not initially know was that certain nightclubs and bars here are 'strictly white.' In our ignorance, we once took a German friend to a club where a Nigerian at the door asked us for our identification. We were then asked to pay AED 200 (Rs 2,400) per head to just enter the place! Even as all this was happening, white folk were walking in without being stopped or asked any questions. It was our first experience of this kind and we were deeply humiliated. Our German friend was visibly upset and could not look us in the eye for the rest of the evening.
No one talks about this kind of segregation, even though it has been going on for ages. A quick glance at the newspapers and magazines here will reveal many articles on lifestyle and shopping, but hardly anything on serious social issues. Asians, meanwhile, avoid these places to save themselves the humiliation.
I try to rationalise what is happening, but cannot come up with a reasonable answer. Asians have lived in Dubai for more than 40 years. They've built some of its finest buildings and hotels. They've been loyal to their employers and respectful to its citizens. The West has only noticed Dubai recently. Yet, white-skinned people exert a huge influence here and their perceived superiority supersedes logic.
I eventually found a temporary job in a predominantly Asian environment. Though the going has been good, I am painfully aware of the experience that awaits me once my term here is complete.
Yet, there is hope.
I believe Indians are second to none in the world.
Secondly, every business looks at the profit line. Any good business will always explore ways to get more for less. I may come cheaper not because I offer more for less but because my expectations are realistic and match what organisations can afford to pay. Today, most organisations here pay far more for far less. Sooner or later, they will be forced to realise that brains and hard work matter more than the colour of one's skin.
Besides, not all organisations and people are discriminatory. I have interacted with organisations that possess a great deal of cross-cultural sensitivity and can truly be called equal opportunity employers. I have been fortunate enough to make friends with people from all nationalities and have found them to respectful and tolerant of each other.
I can hardly blame the bouncers I encounter because employees simply do what they are told. Where there is demand, there will be supply. When regulars at clubs express a desire for a place that caters to 'their kind,' when locals listen to words coming out of a Westerner's mouth with rapt attention but disregard an Asian saying the same thing, establishments will toe the line.
Why am I still in Dubai? Well, I left my family and friends, sold my belongings and moved here to make a better living and get some international exposure. To go back now would be to admit defeat. I may crib endlessly about how we are disadvantaged, but these experiences have made me stronger. I am determined to show the world what I am capable of without having to lose my identity as an Indian.
I do, however, expect a greater degree of government intervention where such issues are concerned. This kind of behaviour should be punishable by law. It is time they make the UAE more than a great place to shop and be entertained in; it should also become a melting pot for all cultures and societies.
I also expect Indians who are working in influential positions to stop being passive observers and perpetuators of the system. I don't expect to be told by an Indian GM or manager that I will have to settle for less because I am Indian. There is nothing sadder than that.
Illustration: Dominic Xavier