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Racism in the international job market
Sunanda K Datta-Ray
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January 06, 2007
Is it likely that the new year might see the global Indian transformed back into the unwanted Indian? I am not thinking only of the latest Indian complaints of being squeezed out of Britain, but also of a revival of certain ominous straws in the wind in Singapore.

Some months ago, an expatriate wrote to The Straits Times describing his problems in trying to rent a decent flat because he was Indian. The irony is that discussing the complaint, a local second-generation Indian sided entirely with the racist (Chinese, I assumed) landlords. "All for them lah," my stout Indian Singaporean bellowed in habitual Singlish. "Indians living so badly, making thorough mess of things. One came for my flat. 'Cannot' I told him. Had to, lah..."

Physically, no one could have looked more Indian than the speaker. But birth in another land entitled him to claim to be different, if not better.

Now comes an even more serious complaint about an online advertisement for a project manager's job posted in late December. "Non-Indians preferred" it said bluntly.

Flabbergasted by this unabashed evidence of prejudice, an IT manager, N Prasannakumar, wrote to Today newspaper, "Many of us would read it as 'Indians not preferred'. This clearly reeks of racism in the Singapore job context and does not augur well for racial harmony in this country."

The advertising company has since explained it was a "mistake" and "an oversight by a new staff." Apparently, "the line was removed immediately when the mistake was discovered." The company says the new project manager "will be part of a team of eight persons, among which currently, there are three Indians, three Chinese and one Filipino."

Accepting this was a genuine mistake, I shan't name the company while readers try to work out what the rigmarole means. But let me add that a recent survey by Kelly Services, a global staffing solutions firm, found that two out of three workers in Singapore complained of experiencing prejudice of one kind or another when applying for a job in the last five years. Age was the main reason but race came next, followed by gender and disability. That, despite the ministry of manpower's efforts to educate employers in fair employment practices.

They are smoother in Britain. When the first Race Relations Act was passed in the late sixties, my elderly English secretary in London and her husband decided to sell their large suburban house in the Home Counties, and move to a smaller place. They lost money by not advertising the sale. "Oh! We couldn't do that to the neighbours, Mr Datta-Ray," she exclaimed. "We've been there 30 years!" What she meant was that a publicly advertised sale would have obliged her to sell to an Asian, African or West Indian. Privately, she could pick and choose among only whites.

After the US desegregated restaurants, a waitress in Atlanta, Georgia, told me they still didn't serve blacks. "Oh, we have ways of making them feel unwanted," she laughed, prepared to make an exception for an Asian who was obviously only passing through. I understood though why my hosts in Washington had booked me into Atlanta's most expensive hotel.

I am told that a British reporting team assigned to expose discrimination in the job market recently went to a recruiting agency posing as an employer's representative, and said it wanted only whites. "No problem!" the team was assured. The recruitment agency would so weed out applications that no disappointed coloured applicant would ever know that he or she had been rejected on grounds of race.

So, too, with the Highly Skilled Migrant Programme which was introduced four years ago when Britain needed specialist skills like cooking in Indian restaurants. That need has gone. Faced, moreover, with an expected influx of Romanian plasterers and Bulgarian cleaners to join Polish plumbers, Tony Blair's government has cannily tinkered with the rules so that non-European migrants must be under 28 years of age and must earn more than �35,000 annually to qualify. Two earlier modifications, like a five-year, instead of four-year, residence qualification and sudden restrictions on non-European doctors also indirectly served the same purpose as the blunt Singaporean "Non-Indians preferred" job advertisement.

I am not complaining about this manipulation. Indians do not have a prescriptive right to live and work anywhere else but India. Economic need cannot masquerade as a human right. Every government enjoys the right to decide who it wants as settlers, and I can only think that the 30,000 Indians, who are reportedly suing the British government, somewhat lacking in self-esteem. There is also the funny side of an ageing Scots doctor being prosecuted under the Race Relations Act for advertising for a Scots housekeeper who could cook his haggis and kippers.

The reason for recounting all this is to remind ourselves at the start of another year that Wal-Mart and Lakshmi Mittal notwithstanding, little has changed for ordinary Indians. The rich and the talented have always been global. It's humdrum wage-earners who yearn for the world more desperately than the world wants them.

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