Racial Discrimination in the UAE: It’s a Two-Way Highway

By Rache Hernandez


The UAE is a melting pot of various nationalities and that has infused the country in general, and the corporate world in particular, with a whole gamut of work values, priorities, customs, and the like. In such a diverse environment, it is sometimes difficult to keep pre-conceived notions at bay, making the workplace conducive for racial discrimination.

It is notoriously difficult to put a number on racial discrimination in UAE workplaces. In an article published on 3 May 2009, Gulf News stated that The Ministry of Labour in Abu Dhabi “receives few complaints about racial discrimination in the workplace because they are difficult to prove and victims are often afraid of losing their jobs.”

Stereotyping Discrimination 

It Starts At The Beginning

With just a quick look at job advertisements in the UAE, it is easy to deduce that racial considerations play a part in the local work culture. For example, it is not uncommon to see job postings specifically for applicants who are ‘European’, ‘Western-educated’, ‘native English speakers’, ‘female Indians or FIlipinas’, ‘Arab nationals’, etc. Conversely, applicants for jobs may be looking for employers who are Europeans or Westerners, or may promote themselves as ‘Russian lady wearing a hijab’. 


The Great Divide

There is also the issue of salary discrepancy – the ‘elephant in the room’ for a lot of companies. In 2013, the Gulf Business Salary Survey revealed that Asian expats living in the UAE received an average salary that was 25.8% less than what a Westerner of the same position received. While Asians received an average monthly salary of US$9,060 (roughly AED 33,000), Westerners received an average of US$12,215.50 (about AED 45,000) monthly.

The Gulf Business Salary Survey also mentioned that headhunters had a justification behind this salary chasm. Companies offer Westerners a higher salary because they are perceived to possess more desirable skills, and because they have to be paid competitive rates for the same position in their home country. Applied in general terms, this means that the UAE salary range for a nationality is competitive with what they would receive if they held same position in their home country.

Lou Parroco, Human Resources Director at the Canadian Energy Equipment Manufacturing FZE, has been a victim of this salary situation in a previous job. “I was once offered a position as Director of Human Resources & Compliance with a package that I thought was fair, until I saw in the payroll that a secretary, 12 years my junior, of Western nationality, was being paid almost equal to my salary.” 



Michelle Madla, an Executive Assistant at Stantec Middle East, believes that negative stereotypes are also a form of discrimination. “People seem to think that Filipinas are ‘easy’, that we can be promiscuous in the name of supporting our family back home,” Michelle explained. “As a single mother, I have to regularly contend with this notion, even at work, although my reason for being a single mom is no one else’s business but my own.” 

Inversely, Filipinos are also quite prone to throwing stereotypes around. These can cover anything from South Asian’s hygiene levels and the Arabs’ perpetually angry conversational tone, to calling people of color “nognog” or the Chinese “singkit.” In this light, Filipinos are as guilty as everyone else of racial bias. 


‘Confirmation Bias’

Where do all these judgements come from? In Dubai in 2011, Dr. Lee Newman, Dean of the School of Human Sciences and Technology at IE University in Spain, presented the findings of his study on behavioral biases of human judgements and decision-making in the corporate arena. His study found that a phenomenon called ‘confirmation bias’ happens when people perceive other people as not being forthcoming, and consequently arrive at conclusions that are founded on default biases. 

Translated into a corporate environment, the more diverse the workplace, the greater the incidence of ‘confirmation bias’. When people from all corners of the globe co-exist with cultures they have little or no experience with, they tend to make sense of cultural nuances through their own understanding of these cultures, limited as they may be. 


UAE Anti-Discrimination Law

To curb discrimination in the UAE, the Anti-Discrimination Law was enacted on 20 July 2015 under a decree by UAE President Sheikh Khalifa bin Zayed Al Nahyan. The law criminalizes any form of discrimination against religion, caste, creed, doctrine, race, color or ethnic origin. Under the law, discrimination expressed in speech, writing, books, and pamphlets and through online media is prohibited.

Apart from discouraging hate culture, the Anti-Discrimination Law is seen as a big step towards cultural tolerance in the workplace. Lou believes that the new law will “significantly minimize the incidence of racial discrimination.” She reiterated, however, that the law will not completely eradicate the problem. “The effectiveness of the law will greatly depend on how assertively individuals report these discrimination experiences.” 


Impact On Companies

Companies will do well to establish or update internal regulations and procedures to raise employees’ awareness of the Anti-Discrimination Law and the acts that it governs, all geared towards the protection of their workforce as a whole. Lou agreed, stating that “companies should ensure that employees are educated about the Anti-Discrimination Law.” 

Lou also believes that UAE companies will greatly benefit from the proper implementation of the law.  “The implementation of the law is a strong reinforcement that will positively contribute to business performance. Workplace morale will see a significant boost, improving company performance and profitability, while also protecting employees from unfair employment practices” she stated. 


No Filter

As residents of a progressive and culturally open country, and as people who often see themselves as marginalized, Filipinos should applaud and support the enactment of the Anti-Discrimination Law. Instead of perpetually thinking of ourselves as “agrabyado” (at the losing end), we should consider ourselves as sources of empowerment by educating others about the new law and stand up for ourselves if we are on the receiving end of discriminatory practices.

More importantly, we should open our consciousness and learn to further embrace cultural diversity. Keep in mind that other people probably see us with the same filters that we use on them. Accept that other nationalities are as different from us, as we are to them, and that different does not necessarily mean bad.

Racial Discrimination in the UAE: It’s a Two-Way Highway


Workplace discrimination in other countries

Workplace racial discrimination is a global issue. In the United States, a proxy indicator of the level of discrimination in the workplace is unemployment rate. Numbers from the US Department of Labor for 2016 point to marked differences in the unemployment rate of African-Americans compared to whites and other minorities. The number of unemployed African Americans is twice as high (9%) as that of the white population (4.6%).

In Canada, the results of the National Household Survey in 2011 showed that the unemployment rate (9.9%) was higher among visible minority workers (defined by the Canadian government as all workers who are non-Canadian aboriginal, non-Caucasian, and non-white), compared to that of white workers (7.3%). Interestingly, unemployment in Canada was highest among Arabs (14.2%), black workers (12.9%) and South Asian workers (10.2%). 

In the UK, data released by Business in the Community, a business-led charity that is part of The Prince’s Responsible Business Network, showed that employment rate in the second quarter of 2014 was lowest among Pakistanis (49.8%), topped by Bangladeshis (55.1%), and Chinese (58.4%). 


High-profile Cases

In the US (2010), General Electric found itself in an electrifying situation after 60 African American workers sued the company for racial discrimination. The workers alleged that they were denied bathroom breaks and medical attention by their supervisor, and also expressed that, although higher-ups were told of the supervisor’s discriminatory acts, investigation on the matter was intentionally delayed.  

In 2010, Southern California Edison, the largest subsidiary of Edison International and the main electricity supplier of Southern California, was sued by African American workers for racial discrimination, alleging that the company routinely denied them promotion and fair pay, among others.

In 2003, clothing retailer Abercrombie & Fitch settled a lawsuit filed by some of its African American, Asian American and Latino employees, who claimed that they were purposely steered into jobs in the storeroom instead of the sales floor because they did not represent the brand’s classic ‘American look’. 




HR Expert Lou Parroco5 things to keep in mind when fighting workplace racial discrimination

Lou Parroco, Human Resources Director at the Canadian Energy Equipment Manufacturing FZE, has the following advice for employees who find themselves discriminated against at work:


  1. Gather objective proof. Make sure it’s real and not just a perception.


  1. Follow your company’s established procedures. When a company enacts a policy that prohibits discrimination, it will also issue a clear process for reporting and resolution.


  1. Speak to your manager first. If your immediate manager is involved, you can report to your manager’s manager, or to the HR manager.


  1. Let the HR manager conduct investigations, interview witnesses if any, review the law/policy, and recommend a resolution.


  1. Always be professional. Never allow your self-worth to be determined by others. Be professional, assertive, and confident. Continue developing yourself.


Rache Hernandez


Rache Hernandez graduated from UP-Diliman with a degree in Communication Research and currently works as a writer for a prominent company in Dubai.  In this issue, Rache navigates the treacherous subject of racial discrimination in the workplace and gives us Overseas Filipinos some very relevant points to ponder.



Read about other Filipino professionals making waves at the work front


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