Saudi minister warns of racism towards foreign workers

Posted at 12/29/08 11:43 PM

RIYADH - Saudi Labor Minister Ghazi al-Gosaibi has warned against growing racism among Saudis towards the millions of foreign workers in the kingdom, mainly domestics, media reports said on Monday.

Gosaibi told senior labor ministry officials on Sunday that the country should treat foreign workers better, protect their rights and not succumb to racism, local newspapers reported.

"Regrettably, we have become overwhelmed by arrogance and even racism, and we have begun to imagine that we are better than those who have come to share in shouldering the burden of development," he said.

"We should not be arrogant or racist towards those who came to serve us in our homes after we used to do everything ourselves," Gosaibi said of reported maltreatment of domestic workers, who reportedly number around 1.5 million.

Foreign workers have a huge presence throughout the kingdom, estimated at more than eight million altogether in a country with a native population of over 17 million.

Mainly Indians, Pakistanis, Filipinos, Indonesians and Bangladeshis, foreigners work in everything from construction and as household domestics to nursing, as shop attendants, programmers and business managers.

Ghosaibi told officials their job is to protect such workers' rights, prevent mistreatment of foreigners and protect Saudi Arabia's reputation.

"When a foreigner came here to work in the past, we treated him with deference because he was either a doctor we asked to treat us, a teacher from whom we sought knowledge or an accountant we asked to watch over our business.

"But today this picture has changed. We look at them like they have come to rob us or to corrupt our society and spread criminality, even though it is us who have brought them here," he said.

The minister's comments came amid controversy over a privately financed television and newspaper advertising campaign promoting respect for foreign maids, drivers and other low-wage workers.

The "Mercy" campaign confronts Saudis with images of ugly treatment of their hired help -- not paying them regularly, not giving them time off and even treating them like animals.

Some Saudis have complained that the public service ad campaign, by Jeddah-based advertising company FullStop, gives the country a bad image.

US-based Human Rights Watch (HRW) said in a July report that many Saudis believed they "owned" their foreign domestic workers and treated them like slaves.