Dubai Expo 2020, Migrant Workers at Risk
A report by the Business & Human Rights Resource Centre has revealed widespread exploitation and abuse of construction workers involved in infrastructure projects related to the Expo 2020 set to take place one year from now in Dubai, with more than 60% of companies having no public commitments to human rights.
The snapshot reveals that 62 of the new construction projects awarded since January of 2018 have been given to companies who failed to disclose how they protect the rights of their workers. Pertinently, 66% of these contracts - with an estimated worth of $25.3bn - have been awarded to companies owned or partially run by members of the UAE government.
Expo 2020, dubbed ‘The Greatest Show On Earth’, is aimed towards improving the economic growth and public image of the Gulf state - it is expected to add 122.6 billion dirhams ($33.4 billion) to the United Arab Emirates' economy between 2013 and 2031, and see 25 million visits, or 145,000 visits for every one of the 173 days the site will be open.
However, the 4.38sq km project has been encumbered with problems since its inception, including unsafe working conditions, lack of mobility and late or non-payment of wages. Heat exhaustion is of particular concern in the construction industry, which employs 34% of the UAE’s worker population. Though worker fatality numbers in the UAE are not publicly disclosed, according to data from the Indian government, 5,185 Indian nationals died between 2012–2017. In 2017, 70% of recorded deaths amongst blue collar workers were designated as heart attacks - many of these were attributed to heat stress resulting from exhaustive construction.
These problems are exacerbated by a work-visa sponsorship program that entrenches disparate power dynamics between employer and employee. Under this system, the legal presence of the worker is provided for by the company he/she is employed by. Though under 2017 Law it is illegal to deny annual leave, regular wages and resignations, nor is it legal to confiscate passports or force workers to work more than 8 hours per day without compensation, it is understood that these practices persist. A recent report on the working and living conditions of low-income migrant workers in the UAE outlines how:
Eighty-five per cent of the interviewed migrants signed a contract in Dubai but most of them could not understand its terms as the contract is written in Arabic and some were not sure if they had received a copy.
Only 6 percent of the interviewed migrants signed in Dubai the same contract they were offered in the home country and 28 per cent of the interviewed workers signed a different one while the majority was unsure about the issue.
Only 10 percent of the interviewed workers reported that their salary was the same as written in the contract, while 37 per cent said it was not.
The occupancy level of not more than eight persons per room provided by the law is respected in most cases. However, 57 per cent of the interviewed migrants (81 per cent of the females and 45 per cent of the males) said that there were too many persons per room, probably implying that the rooms were too small, contrary to the law requiring a space of 3m(2) per person.
The Resource Centre, meanwhile, has tracked 39 publicly reported allegations of human rights abuse by companies since 2016, involving over 4,600 workers from South Asian and African countries. 85% of cases involved delayed or non-payment of wages. Moreover, according to recent research from Gulf Labour Markets and Migration, over 50% of construction workers surveyed in Dubai didn’t receive their wages on time and were denied adequate overtime payments.
A report by Sara Hamza has shown how the geography of the city of Dubai is also manipulated in such a way that migrant workers are often pushed into camps at the periphery of the city limits, out of sight and out of mind for the affluent few in the metropole. In two of the largest camps, Al Quoz and Sonapor, workers are forced to share a small, windowless room between 8-12 other people. Many compounds have little to no drainage system and access to electricity is infrequent.
Expo 2020 is not concerned with worker safety - it is a PR campaign intended to project power and boost economic growth. The ICFUAE condemns what amounts to little more than a soft power tool in the UAE’s ever-expanding arsenal of cultural diplomacy and calls for the enforcement of safe and fair working conditions.