Security guards, cleaners and hospitality staff at Dubai’s Expo 2020 in the United Arab Emirates (UAE) are allegedly working in highly abusive conditions that may amount to forced labour, according to a human rights group.
Migrant workers employed at the international fair in the UAE – taking place now after being delayed by Covid – allege they have been forced to pay illegal recruitment fees, suffered racial discrimination and had wages withheld and passports confiscated, said the report by Equidem.
Dubbed the “world’s greatest show”, Expo 2020 hosts 192 national pavilions, showcasing the latest ideas in technology and sustainability. Organizers hope to see 25 million visitors during the course of the fair, which opened in October 2021 and runs to March 2022.
The event has attracted big corporate sponsors, global stars such as will.i.am and social media influencers, with visitors promised the “next wave of human brilliance”.
But Equidem’s report highlighted the, “significant disconnect between the Emirate’s stated ambition of being a modern, international state and the reality of racial discrimination and forced labor practices that migrant workers are facing”.
It said the UAE’s alleged failure to protect migrant workers damages the reputation of countries and companies taking part in the event.
Equidem’s director, Mustafa Qadri, said: “The entire international community is complicit in the exploitation at the Expo. It’s a scandal.”
Migrant workers, predominantly from the Indian subcontinent and parts of Africa, make up more than 90% of workers in the UAE’s private sector.
More than half the 69 workers interviewed for the report said they had paid recruitment fees in their own countries to secure their jobs. Many claimed their employers were aware of this practice but failed to intervene or reimburse the fees. The practice, which is illegal in the UAE, often leaves workers deep in debt.
Two-thirds of the migrant workers interviewed said their wages or other benefits were not always paid on time or in full, leaving some struggling to pay for food or send money home to their families.
“They promised me an increment in salary after probation – something I have not seen to date … Never have I received overtime payment from my employer … The way they treat the staff is like slaves, I mean modern-day slavery,” said one hospitality worker.
Virtually all workers said their passports were held by their employer. While most said they could get them back on request, the practice is illegal and can be used by some companies to control their workforce.
One worker said his employer kept his passport, despite instructions from Expo’s management to return workers’ passports. He said: “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.”
While there was some evidence that working conditions at the Expo were generally better than elsewhere in the UAE, the findings allegedly revealed multiple breaches of the Emirate’s labor laws, as well as the more stringent worker welfare standards introduced to protect the rights of workers employed in constructing the event and providing security and hospitality services.
The UAE authorities and participating nations have been repeatedly warned of the risks of labor abuse at the Expo.
On the eve of its official opening, in September 2021, the European parliament passed a resolution calling on international companies sponsoring the event to withdraw and a boycott by member states, citing human rights abuses in the UAE, including the detention of activist Ahmed Mansoor and the “pervasive” abuse of migrant workers.
The Arab parliament dismissed the claims. In a statement, it said: “The UAE is one of the leading countries with regards to human rights.”
In October, Human Rights Watch described the Expo as an opportunity, “for the UAE to falsely present itself on the world stage as open, tolerant, and rights-respecting while shutting down the space for politics, public discourse, and activism”. The rights group urged governments and businesses, “to avoid contributing to UAE authorities’ efforts to whitewash its abuses”.
The UAE authorities and Expo 2020 did not respond to multiple requests for comment. A statement on the Expo 2020 website reads: “We are committed to the health, safety, welfare and dignity of all workers.” It claims workers’ welfare standards are monitored through regular inspections of working and living conditions.