Why you should care

Because survival can be an ugly business.

Thanguvel Sumanan was shocked — mostly at his own reaction — when he learned that Singapore’s police had arrested a young nurse for posting a racially provocative Facebook message aimed at the city-state’s locals earlier this year. Like the nurse, Sumanan is an immigrant living in Singapore. The only difference? He’s from India, working as a construction laborer at two upcoming high-rises, while the nurse is from the Philippines. As a fellow foreigner, Sumanan says he knew he should have been sympathetic to the Filipino’s plight. “But in a battle for survival, there’s little space for sympathy,” he notes. “I couldn’t help thinking deep down that it serves them [the Filipino immigrants] right.”

Growing tensions between the indigenous and immigrant worker populations in some of Asia’s economic boomtowns are sparking a race between two key ethnic migrant communities for local acceptance in the economies they hold up. At the heart of the rising friction between Indian immigrants and their Filipino counterparts in places like Dubai, Abu Dhabi and Singapore is a growing immigrant-phobic public debate fueled by concerns that foreign workers are swallowing local jobs and stretching civic amenities. In Singapore, a white paper encouraging immigration has triggered concerns that the city-state is overflowing with foreign workers. And the perception of tensions between locals and immigrant workers is “definitely becoming more widespread,” says Laavanya Kathiravelu, a sociologist at Nanyang Technological University in Singapore who has researched immigrant populations in both Singapore and the United Arab Emirates (UAE).

The best advice for immigrant workers here is to keep your head down. I often tell Filipinos to avoid getting too close to Indians.

Mary Joy Santos, volunteer at the Philippines Embassy in Abu Dhabi

Indians, the largest immigrant community in these cities and countries, mostly work in the construction industry as laborers, with a minority employed in white-collar jobs. Most Filipinos — the second-largest immigrant group — work as nurses, caregivers and household help. Yet some host nations often end up pitting the two immigrant groups against each other in a contest to prove which is better suited for the land where they work. “You want to do the best you can as a community, but it’s pointless if you are pulled down because of something members of another community do,” says Mary Joy Santos, a 46-year-old Filipino who works in Abu Dhabi offering household help. She also works with the Philippines Embassy there to “educate” the community on how to avoid “getting into trouble.” (The embassy confirmed she’s a volunteer, along with others who counsel fellow migrant workers.)

Higher wages in places like Singapore and the UAE have long drawn Indian and Filipino workers from their home countries. A nurse, for example, earns about 3,000 rupees ($47) a month in India, or 2,500 dirhams ($680) in Dubai. Strict curbs on freedom of expression and the threat of deportation keep workers there “firmly in line,” says Syed Ali, an associate professor of sociology and anthropology at Long Island University in Brooklyn, New York. If they go on strike, for instance, or even just make demands for better wages and working conditions, “they’ll often get arrested and deported,” Ali says. “Or the companies fire them, so they lose their work permits, their visas get canceled and they have to leave.”

worker

Migrant workers arrive for their shift at a construction site in Singapore.

Source Charles Pertwee/Corbis

Despite these risks, the dam does occasionally burst. Hundreds of construction workers from the Indian subcontinent who were building a complex near Burj Khalifa, the world’s tallest building, recently protested a pay cut in a rare strike in Dubai. Workers in the Little India neighborhood of Singapore previously rioted after a bus ran over an Indian immigrant — then only the second riot in the strictly policed city-state’s history. And the tension cuts both ways. Last year, a blog called Bloodstained Singapore went viral online, with suggestions from local Singaporeans on how to throw Filipino immigrants off trains.

To be sure, some Indian and Filipino nationals have come together, siring the first generation of “Indipinos” in Singapore and the UAE. While the Indian-Filipino race has existed in the Philippines since at least the 14th century, when Indian traders first sailed there, there are new realities these couples must face these days. Look no farther than Randeep Singh and Isabel Navarro, who married in 2012 after a two-year courtship in Abu Dhabi. Acceptance within their respective communities was a challenge then and remains a stiff one today. In fact, Singh says, his parents in the Indian state of Punjab tried for months to convince him not to marry Navarro. (They wanted him to marry an Indian, he says, and when reached by OZY, his mother didn’t want to comment about her son.) “Since our marriage, they’ve stopped talking to me,” Singh says.

Navarro’s parents, meanwhile, also had their reservations. But, Singh says, they’ve since slowly begun to accept him as their son-in-law. Not everyone gets to this stage, though. On one online forum, an Indian national living in Dubai shares his struggle about choosing between his Filipino girlfriend and the wishes of his parents. “Can anyone tell me what we could do?” he asks. “Should I forget her? Should I marry her knowing the fact that we cant [sic] be together for long?”

Cultural stereotypes only add to tensions between these two groups, and some experts suggest simply to practice avoidance. “The best advice for immigrant workers here is to keep your head down,” Santos says. “I often tell Filipinos to avoid getting too close to Indians.” Hard economic considerations also deepen the divide. In the UAE, salaries often depend on the worker’s nationality — to compensate foreign workers proportionate to wages they’d earn back in their own countries, Ali says. That’s why Europeans tend to get paid more than a local, who in turn usually earns more than a Filipino. A Filipino would earn marginally more than an Indian. “There are often sentiments expressed about unfair advantage and privilege,” Kathiravelu says.

No wonder coming together against perceived discrimination isn’t always an option for these two communities. “It’s hard to even get one community to come together,” Ali says.

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