To ensure a flawless first impression as the first host of the World Expo in the Middle East, Dubai invested billions of dollars in the pandemic-delayed Expo 2020, hoping to attract 25 million visitors to its immaculate fairgrounds and festive festivities, which officially opened last month.
The United Arab Emirates’ contentious labor system, which has long been the subject of allegations of mistreatment of workers, is helping to keep the world’s fair afloat.
Dubai, which is extremely concerned with its public image, is well aware that the Expo is drawing attention to its labor practices. It has required companies involved in the project to adhere to higher standards of worker treatment than is customary in the industry. Contractors provide better wages and benefits to Expo workers when compared to their counterparts elsewhere in the country, and many express gratitude for the opportunities.
According to human rights organizations and interviews with more than two dozen workers, however, violations have continued. Workers’ rights advocates point the finger at the UAE’s labor sponsorship system, which is based on a network of foreign subcontractors, ties workers’ residency to their jobs, and gives employers disproportionate power.
According to workers, they have been required to pay exorbitant, illegal fees to local recruiters in order to work at the world’s fair; their passports have been confiscated; promises about wages have been broken; living conditions are crowded and unsanitary; food is substandard or expensive; and they are required to work 70-hour weeks in sometimes brutal heat;
Worker exploitation is a constant risk, according to Mustafa Qadri, executive director of Equidem, a labor rights consultancy that recently published a report on Expo workers’ mistreatment during the pandemic. “You can have the best standards in the world, but if you have this inherent power imbalance, workers are in a situation where they are at risk of exploitation all the time,” he said.
Expo organizers referred to their previous statement in response to Equidem’s report, in which they stated that Expo takes “extremely seriously” the welfare of its employees.
The statement acknowledged that “wage payments and food” were among the “most frequently raised topics of concern” among the workers, but did not go into further detail.
While expo has yet to respond to questions about alleged worker mistreatment, which has included reports of illegal recruitment fees and passports being confiscated, the company has declined to comment.
Because of labor violations at Expo as well as other human rights concerns, the European Parliament has called for a boycott of the show. The United Arab Emirates described the resolution as “factually incorrect,” without providing further details.
Hundreds of workers sweep the vast fairgrounds for eight hours a day, seven days a week, according to Mohammed, 27. He said he found the job through a recruiter in his hometown in southern Ghana who promised him more than $500 a month, including housing, food, and other benefits. First, however, he had to pay a $1,150 fee, which he had to pay out of years of savings, though the agent assured him that he would quickly recoup the money.
When Mohammed arrived, he discovered that he would be paid as little as $190 per month. In six months, he would have earned less than he had paid to obtain the position.
“If I had known, I would never have come,” said Mohammed, who asked to be identified only by his first name for fear of retaliation. “If I had known, I would have never come.” The majority of those interviewed by the Associated Press did so under the condition of anonymity for fear of losing their jobs.
When the pandemic first broke out, Equidem documented numerous instances of abuse on the Expo construction site. Employees reported going hungry as their employers withheld up to five months’ worth of promised wages and benefits following their termination.
Some were stripped of their identification documents, rendering them unable to change jobs or leave the country. Many were forced to live in cramped quarters, with one instance involving more than 80 people sharing a single toilet.
Expo workers interviewed by the Associated Press described various forms of exploitation, with inadequate food being a major source of contention. Many people complained about working long hours in the sweltering heat. Employees from West Africa and Pakistan claimed they had paid recruiters hundreds of dollars to secure their positions. Others claimed that their employers had confiscated their passports, with a lack of freedom being a central complaint in a system in which fleeing from one’s employer is grounds for arrest and deportation a central complaint.
Eric, a cleaner from Cameroon, said he and his colleagues complained to Emrill Services, based in Dubai, about the high cost of food and the lack of access to the kitchen, but received no response. They make less than $300 a month, and they do not receive any food assistance.
“We don’t eat until we’re full because if we do, we won’t get paid until the end of the month,” he explained.
In response to a request for comment, Emrill stated that it “takes employee well-being very seriously” and that it would investigate the complaints.
In a report from the Expo entrance, guards working for the Abu Dhabi-based construction company Arkan said they were promised hot meals during their eight-hour break. Despite their repeated requests to supervisors over the course of three months, the guards have received nothing, leaving them hungry throughout the day. Requests for comment from Arkan did not receive a response.
The Expo’s security guards work the longest shifts, putting in 13-hour shifts with a 40-minute lunch break. They are out in the scorching sun for long periods of time, with only brief breaks. During the summer, temperatures in Dubai routinely exceeded 50 degrees Celsius (120 degrees Fahrenheit) on a daily basis.
They described being under constant surveillance, with managers threatening salary deductions and other penalties if they fell asleep in their seats or took excessively long bathroom breaks.
When it comes to attendance, if you show up late, if you close your eyes on the job, or if you go inside too many times, you’ll lose your pay for at least a day, according to an Indian guard working for Dubai-based First Security Group at Expo.
At least six people stated that they were unable to keep hold of their passports. A few cleaners claimed they’d signed consent forms they didn’t understand, allowing the company to confiscate their documents for safekeeping — an illegal practice that is widespread in the UAE despite the fact that it is prohibited there.
Despite the difficulties, the vast majority of employees expressed gratitude for salaries that far exceed what they would earn at home or even in a similar job elsewhere in Dubai, according to the survey. Many also believe they are making a contribution to the efforts of the world’s fair to bring countries and cultures together.
Others, on the other hand, find the days spent commuting back and forth between the fairgrounds and the dormitories, where four to six people share a room, to be dreary.
“Work, sleep, work, sleep,” says the author. “There is no freedom,” a 40-year-old Kenyan security guard explained. “All you have to do is try to make it from one day to the next.”