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UAE: Dubai Expo 2020 workers claim forced labour practices

Workers allege they had to pay illegal recruitment fees, with passports confiscated and wages withheld as they faced racial discrimination
Construction workers on the site of the French Expo 2022 pavilion building in Dubai
Construction workers on the site of the French pavilion building in Dubai on 16 December 2020 (AFP)

Migrant workers at Dubai's Expo 2020 have alleged they are being exploited in highly abusive conditions, the Guardian has reported. 

Workers interviewed between September and December 2021 for a 43-page report published by Equidem, a human rights research charity, said they were charged illegal recruitment fees, had passports confiscated, had wages withheld and were subjected to racial discrimination and bullying.

'The company made us sign a paper saying we had received our passport. In reality, it is still in the office'

- Worker quoted by Equidem

While UAE law prohibits forced labour, no business or individual has been held accountable or investigated, Equidem stated.

Ninety percent of workers employed in the United Arab Emirates private sector are migrants and more than seven million foreign workers in the UAE are employed by 260,000 organisations.

The report stated that 83 percent of those interviewed had paid illegal recruitment fees and/or didn't receive wages and benefits on time. More than a third of those interviewed reported discrimination and bullying. 

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"Respect for labour rights is a moral, cultural and economic imperative," states the website of the UAE embassy in Washington DC. “As a member of the International Labor Organisation (ILO), the Arab Labour Organisation and other labour-focused multilateral organisations, the UAE seeks to work transparently and objectively with regard to its international labour obligations."

'Labour exploitation crisis'

In the report, a Pakistani construction worker at Expo 2020 said: "Yes, they discriminate a lot when it comes to dividing work, the Asians are given heavy work and less pay while the Europeans and Arabs are given lighter roles with lots of income… The Asians were the first to lose their jobs which they work so hard for."

Equidem interviewed 69 workers from Bangladesh, India, Kenya, Nepal and Pakistan, as well as from six African countries. Their ages ranged from 24 to 42.

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One worker told Equidem: "My employer has my passport. After we started working at the site, the site's worker welfare person gave instructions to the company saying they had to return workers' passports. The company made us sign a paper saying we had received our passport. In reality, it is still in the office of our accommodation camp."

Equidem wrote: "The UAE's failure to protect migrant workers from forced labour also exposes its foreign state allies and international business partners at serious risk of liability for human rights violations in the country.

"If women and men are being subjected to these exploitative practices at Expo 2020 Dubai, where the resources available for monitoring labour compliance and the standards applied are higher than the national labour regime, questions must be raised about the risks of forced labour and other forms of exploitation in the UAE more broadly.

"Without active enforcement and recognition of workers' rights to freedom of association, collective bargaining and other trade union rights, the UAE's new labour laws will do little to address the country's labour exploitation crisis."

None of the workers interviewed formally reported any issues to employers because they feared retaliation. Many of them were also not aware of their rights as workers. 

'Whitewashing' human rights violations

One worker told Equidem: "I have never raised any complaint on the bullying, because I know there will not be any change if I make any complaint. I want to continue my job as I have some financial problems."

Expo 2020, an international fair in the UAE delayed due to the Covid pandemic, opened in October 2021 and will end in March. The 182-day fair links innovation, technology, culture and the arts.

'Questions must be raised about the risks of forced labour and other forms of exploitation in the UAE more broadly'

- Equidem

In October, an event representative confirmed six workers had died and more than 70 had been seriously injured in the lead-up to Dubai Expo 2020, while insisting safety standards on site were "world-class".

This is not the first time the event has faced a backlash.

Pro-Palestine activists have called for a boycott of Dubai Expo 2020 after the event promoted and celebrated Israel. The event's organisers were accused of normalising the UAE's pro-Israel ties and "whitewashing" human rights violations against Palestinians, MEE reported.

In October, Human Rights Watch (HRW) said authorities in the UAE had been using Expo 2020 Dubai to promote a public image of openness at odds with the government's efforts to prevent scrutiny of its rampant systemic human rights violations.

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