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Migrant Workers Face Discrimination, Forced Labour Practices at Dubai Expo 2020

A study by the human rights organisation Equidem says a majority of migrant workers, many of whom are Indians, are working under exploitative conditions at the mega international event.

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New Delhi: A majority of workers at Dubai’s Expo 2020 are facing forced labour practices and racial discrimination, a human rights organisation said, documenting a host of violations of Emirati labour laws and the event’s own worker welfare standards.

Equidem released a report on February 2, saying racial discrimination and forced labour practises are rampant at the Expo, a six-month mega event that was scheduled to take place in 2020 but was postponed due to the COVID-19 pandemic. It began in October 2021 and will continue until March 31.

It is first world expo to be held in the Middle East and is expected to attract 25 million visitors during its six months of operation. The numbers may increase after the Expo ends, as the site will be converted to attract business, high-tech innovation and a residential population to the area.

The study reveals that most migrant workers at Dubai Expo 2020 are facing racial discrimination and bullying, forced labour practices, illegal recruitment fees, non-payment of wages and benefits, retention of passports and difficulty or unwillingness to access grievance mechanisms.

The report, titled “EXPOsed: Discrimination and Forced Labour Practices at Expo 2020 Dubai,” is based on research between September and December 2021. Equidem conducted confidential interviews with 69 workers employed at Expo Dubai 2020.  The research was carried out in an environment of significant risk to migrant workers for speaking about their conditions.

It revealed that migrant workers engaged on projects at Expo 2020 Dubai across a range of sectors – from hospitality and retail to construction and security – are being subjected to forced labour practices. “These practices violate UAE law yet, as far as Equidem is aware, none have been investigated by the authorities, nor has any individual or business been brought to account,” the report said.

Equidem is a human rights organisation founded in 2021 by a group of international and grassroots human rights experts and activists in Africa, Asia, Europe and the Middle East. Its research within Gulf countries is conducted by current and former low-wage migrant workers from Asia and Africa.  

The report found that more than half the interviewed workers paid “recruitment fees” in their own countries to secure jobs at the fair. Two-thirds of the migrant workers said their wages or other benefits were not always paid on time or in full. More than a third (37%) of workers stated that there was discrimination and/or bullying in the workplace. All these practices violate UAE laws.

Babik (not his real name), an Indian national working at Expo 2020 Dubai, told Equidem, “It’s very tiring. I work from early in the morning till late in the evening. They promised me an increment in salary after probation, something I have not seen to date. I have never received overtime payments from my employer. The way they treat the staff is like slaves. I mean, modern-day slavery.”

Gheche (not her real name), who works for a hotel at Expo 2020 Dubai, said, “There is a lot of discrimination at work amongst nationalities. I witnessed discrimination, especially against dark-skinned employees, who didn’t have anyone to speak on their behalf when the company was looking to fire staff. Some of the workers were given redundancy, but especially among the Africans, they were given redundancy without pay.”

Chandra, a Nepali security guard at Expo 2020 Dubai told Equidem, “My employer has my passport. The company made us sign a paper saying we have received our passport. In reality, it is still in the office of our accommodation camp.” UAE law prohibits employers from confiscating the passports of migrant workers.

UAE’s dependence on migrant workers

Migrant workers make up more than 90% of private-sector employees in the UAE, with the Expo being totally dependent on them for the construction of pavilions and infrastructure and providing services like cleaning, security, and hospitality at the event.

The construction element of the Expo alone included 50 main contractors, over 2,000 subcontractors and more than 40,000 workers, Equidem said.

Mustafa Qadri, chief executive officer of Equidem, said, “Our research indicates a significant disconnect between the Emirate’s stated ambition of being a modern, international state and the reality of racial discrimination and forced labour practises that migrant workers are facing. Although the Expo organisers developed higher labour standards than national laws and mechanisms to lodge complaints, our research found that workers are too fearful of speaking out because of the real risk of punishment by employers or state authorities.”

Equidem questioned the decision to hold the Expo in the UAE, a state that has faced regular reports of migrant workers being subjected to serious labour rights violations in recent years. “Based on these concerns, in September 2021, the European Parliament urged nations not to take part in Expo 2020 Dubai, citing the UAE’s ‘inhumane practices against foreign workers’ which it said had worsened during the pandemic,” the report says. The UAE denies these allegations.

Equidem called on states and businesses represented at Expo 2020 Dubai – there are 192 national pavilions at the event – to conduct independent labour assessments on their sites at the megaproject. It aims to formally bring the perpetrators to justice while ensuring remedies for victims through the UAE authorities, wherever credible information of forced labour and other human rights violations is identified.

In 2020, Equidem released an extensive report, The Cost of Contagion, which highlighted the impact of the COVID-19 pandemic on the rights of low-wage migrant workers in the Emirates, Qatar and Saudi Arabia. Workers spoke of the financial ruin, poverty and psychological impact of unpaid wages, poor accommodation, and inadequate access to medical care while COVID-19 infection rates soared across the three countries.

Under UAE national law and international conventions, forced labour or any other practice that may amount to the trafficking of persons is prohibited. Yet the authorities rarely prosecute forced labour and human trafficking cases.

Every major economy in the world, including the US, China, Japan, the UK, Germany, and India, along with some of the largest consumer brands as sponsors and partners, is represented at the Expo. The failure to protect migrant workers’ rights at such an international event, therefore, calls into question the commitment of the international community as a whole towards human rights.

Furthermore, the UAE has announced a series of labour reforms that came into effect on February 2. However, they do not address the non-compliance of existing protections by businesses because of weak enforcement by the authorities. Trade unionism is illegal in the Emirates, leaving workers without any representation that helps them voice their concerns without fear of retribution or losing their job.