By ISABEL DEBRE, Associated Press
DUBAI, United Arab Emirates (AP) — The legions of workers who built and kept Dubai’s extravagant Expo 2020 site running are grappling with exploitation, according to a new report released Wednesday by a London-based company conditions and a variety of labor abuses faced labor rights group.
The report, by consultancy Equidem, also said the UAE government had failed to demonstrate that its pledges to protect workers’ welfare at the multi-billion dollar expo corrected, let alone identified, wrongdoing.
It comes after The Associated Press published an investigation based on interviews with over two dozen Expo workers about their grievances, including their payment of illegal recruitment fees, employer confiscation of passports and inadequate nutrition. That article also drew on Equidem’s earlier research into the working conditions of construction workers a year before the opening of the World’s Fair, when workers said they had been denied wages for months during the coronavirus outbreak.
“I was honestly shocked to see how widespread non-compliance is and how much forced labor is taking place,” Mustafa Qadri, author of the Equidem report and chief executive of the group, said in an interview. “It raises questions about how effective the labor system is in the UAE as the Expo is the country’s most prominent project.”
Expo organizers did not respond to requests for comment on the report. Emirati authorities also did not respond to requests for comment.
The 37-page Equidem report – based on nearly 70 interviews with migrant workers at the Expo over a three-month period last autumn – provides a comprehensive analysis of the labor situation at the World Expo. The huge international event has provided the UAE with a major opportunity to revamp its credentials as a globalized place attractive to tourists and investors.
Foreigners outnumber locals almost nine to one in the United Arab Emirates. Underpinning the machinery of daily life is the country’s labor sponsorship system, which employs millions of low-wage workers from Africa, the Middle East and Southeast Asia and has long drawn allegations of ill-treatment for failing to ensure fair wages, hours of work and living conditions.
The Equidem report states that the majority of workers surveyed were forced to pay illegal recruitment fees to get their jobs, which often exceeded their monthly wages. Despite a ban on the practice at the expo and in the country, the report said, many employers are aware that workers are paying high fees to recruiters in their home countries and are not reimbursing them, leading to a situation of debt bondage.
The Equidem report documented workers who did not receive employment contracts or could not read them because they were not translated into their native language as required by law.
Some received partial payments or had to wait over a week to receive their wages each month, which included their meal allowance. Workers were often denied overtime pay, severance pay and promised bonuses. Employers have in some cases cut wages by as much as 75% as the pandemic hit the economy, workers claimed.
“The way they treat the staff is like slaves,” an employee at the Crab Chic cafe, overlooking the Expo’s iconic dome, told Equidem researchers. “It’s very tiring. I work from early morning to late at night. … I’ve never been paid overtime.”
Most of the workers interviewed gave their passports to their employers, and none of them were able to retrieve them unconditionally, even though Emirati law prohibits companies from confiscating workers’ identification documents.
The workers also said they were victims of discrimination and described how their race dictated their treatment and duties on site.
“Asians are given heavy work and lower pay, while Europeans and Arabs are given lighter, high-income roles,” said one respondent. “Asians are the first to lose their jobs.”
Racism remains a deep-rooted problem in the United Arab Emirates, where slavery was not officially abolished until the 1960s and black workers from Africa and South Asia routinely report that they are now being paid lower wages than their fair-skinned counterparts.
Expo staffers told researchers they feared reprisals, including dismissal and deportation, from employers and police if they spoke out about working conditions and harassment, the report said. Forming unions and mobilizing for better treatment remains criminalized in the autocratic UAE.
With Dubai in the spotlight for the World Expo, which is expected to attract 25 million visitors, the authorities had pledged to step up efforts to end the ongoing practice of forced labour. The Expo produced policies that provide strong protections for workers’ rights. The UAE uses company inspectors to ensure workers have not been exploited.
However, none of the employers featured in the report appeared to adhere to the event’s standards.
“So many international consultants have been hired. Millions and millions have been spent,” Qadri said. “The question arises, are they really serious about fighting forced labour? Or is that just (window) dressing in a really bad situation?”
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