A picture of a South Asian man serving as a mobile hand sanitiser caused anger on social media. State-owned oil giant Aramco, which employs the man, has apologised for the incident.
The plight of migrant workers in Saudi Arabia is under the spotlight after images showing a man serving as a ‘human hand sanitiser’ went viral.
Pictures of the worker, who appears to be of South Asian origin, featured him wearing a big white box which dispenses antiseptic hand steriliser.
In separate images different employees are seen using the dispenser to sanitise their hands.
The scene shocked many of social media and prompted heavy criticism of Aramco, the state-owned oil giant, which employs those seen in the picture.
“I get the Corona Virus scare but seriously @Aramco this is f***ed up and inhuman!” Said one Twitter user.
“Didn't expect from the world's biggest oil company to practise a racist act #shamearamco,” wrote another, reflecting the widespread anger against the company.
Others blamed pre-existing and widespread racism towards migrant workers in the Gulf region.
The most disturbing and shocking inhumane photo I have seen since the hooded man in the American Abu Ghraib prison in then occupied Iraq. Racism, abuse, humiliation of migrant workers are well-documented not just in Saudi Arabia but Qatar, UAE and Kuwait. pic.twitter.com/tPWXGrkpdY— Ahmed Maher (@AhmedMaherBBC) March 11, 2020
Activist Shaista Aziz said:
“This ‘stunt’ by Saudi oil company turning a migrant worker into a ‘walking hand sanitizer’ feeds racist, classist, narrative around the #coronavirus and ‘diseased’ carrying bodies.”
Aramco has apologised for the incident, calling it a violation of its ‘ethics’.
Nevertheless the incident comes against the backdrop of existing worker rights issues in Saudi Arabia and also within Aramco itself.
Oil company Saudi Aramco is facing backlash on social media after pictures show a migrant worker at one of its facilities wearing a box that dispenses hand sanitiser pic.twitter.com/XsMWXdstwo— TRT World (@trtworld) March 11, 2020
One set of excerpts shared on Twitter from the book America's Kingdom by Robert Vitalis described how during its early days, Aramco forbade American employees from interacting with Saudi nationals.
The most profitable company in the world @Saudi_Aramco made a dark-skinned employee dress up as a hand sanitizer dispenser.— Fahad Desmukh (@desmukh) March 11, 2020
Racism at Aramco has a historical context drawing from the US Jim Crow tradition (pg xiii & 102, America's Kingdom, Robert Vitalis, 2006): https://t.co/JUXar4VXC9 pic.twitter.com/SLFWMkRfwf
Saudi and foreign labourers, such as Pakistanis, also protested the conditions under which they were made to work by their American counterparts.
While the workers rights of Saudi nationals have improved since, foreign workers continue to suffer from poor working conditions in Aramco and across the region.
Over 12 million migrant workers in Saudi Arabia occupy positions as varied as senior executives to domestic workers.
According to HRW, a proportion of these workers are subject to abuses and exploitation, including but not limited to the withholding of wages, seizure of travel documents, and physical and psychological abuse at the hands of Saudi employers.
Under the widely criticised ‘Kafala’ system, foreign workers are bound to one employer who has the power to deny them the right to change employer.
The system was introduced by British colonialists to control migration into the Gulf following the discovery of oil and has been kept in place since.
The humiliation, abuse and torture endured by the South Asian workers in Saudi Arabia is an egregious violation of human rights. Our people depend on the money from this labor but it is so hard earned in a loveless, cruel place. https://t.co/Cp9yo5rT9t— 🐅🌸🐅Tanaïs 🌸🐅🌸 (@hiwildflower) March 11, 2020