Rampant Discrimination & Forced Labour Practices At Expo 2020 Dubai

New United Arab Emirates labour law will have limited impact unless authorities address the lack of enforcement and repeal the prohibition on trade unionism to address discriminatory and exploitative practices faced by millions of migrant workers.

Racial discrimination and forced labor practices are rampant at Expo 2020 Dubai, Equidem, a global human rights organization, said today following the launch of a report into the world expo currently taking place in the United Arab Emirates. The report, called “EXPOsed: Discrimination and forced labor practices at Expo 2020 Dubai,” follows six months of one-to-one, confidential interviews by Equidem researchers with workers employed at Expo 2020 Dubai. It documents persistent non-compliance with Emirati labor laws and Expo’s own worker welfare standards. The research was carried out in an environment of significant risk to migrant workers for speaking about their conditions. Equidem took significant precautions to prevent and mitigate any adverse impacts on researchers and the individuals who spoke to them.

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

Cheche (not her real name), who works in hospitality at Expo 2020 Dubai said that Expo 2020 Dubai, the first world expo to be held in the Middle East is expected to attract 25 million visitors during its six months of operation between October 2021 and March 2022. The numbers may increase after Expo ends as the site will be converted to attract business, high-tech innovation, and a residential population to the area.  

Migrant workers make up more than 90% of private-sector employees in the United Arab Emirates, and Expo is totally dependent on women and men from Africa and Asia employed in the construction of pavilions and infrastructure and providing services, like cleaning, security, and hospitality.  

Key findings

Finding #1: Migrant workers face racial discrimination and bullying

More than a third (37%) of workers stated that there was discrimination and/or bullying in the workplace and several gave examples of their direct experience of this. UAE law prohibits discrimination and hatred on the basis of caste, race, religion or ethnic origin. Raz, a security guard at Expo 2020 Dubai, told Equidem, “even when we are doing the same work, all those except the nationals are considered second category staff. We are getting less salary for the same work and the other work-related benefits are also less. I experienced being bullied… by senior staff.”

Finding #2: Workers charged illegal recruitment fees

More than half (57%) of those interviewed had paid recruitment costs despite this being prohibited under UAE legislation and the Expo’s own standards. The average amount paid was US$1,006, with charges ranging from US$2,069 to US$50. Several participants stated that their employers were aware that the agencies they used were charging migrants recruitment fees. The UAE law requires the recruitment cost to be borne by the employer. 

Finding #3: Workers subjected to non-payment of wages and benefits

Two-thirds of workers said that their wages or other benefits were not always paid on time or in full. The most common complaints involved the non-payment of wages, overtime and annual increments; salary reductions; and late payments. The latter issue caused particular hardship when the employee’s food allowance was included as part of their salary. UAE law requires employers to subscribe to the Wage Protection System (WPS) and pay as per the due date. 14 Expo 2020 Dubai Worker Welfare Policy also requires employers to pay employees’ wages and benefits on time and in full.

Finding #4: Workers face retention of passports

UAE law prohibits employers from confiscating the passport of their employees and has declared the same as illegal. 17 Just over two-thirds of interviewees said they could retrieve their passports when they needed to travel abroad or for official purposes (e.g., to renew their contract). But they did not appear to have free access to their documents and had to explain why they needed them. One company forced its workers to sign forms saying that their passports had been returned to them when this was not the case.

Finding #5: Workers are unable to access grievance mechanisms

None of the workers reported or tried to address any of the problems they had at work. Several were unwilling to file complaints because they feared they would be subject to reprisals and/or it would not achieve anything.  Others were unaware of their rights or did not know how to resolve work-related grievances. None of the interviewees received information on their rights as required under the Expo’s own worker protection standards, either at Dubai airport or from their employer 21 and a third of participants stated that they were not given a copy of their contract in their native language. Furthermore, only 10% of workers interviewed were told about key mechanisms for reporting work-related problems, namely the Worker Welfare Committees, the Worker Connect app, or the Expo 2020 Dubai hotline.

The majority of Expo 2020 Dubai workers interviewed faced forced labor practices  

The great majority of migrant workers interviewed by Equidem reported that they had experienced violations of their labor rights which are also indicative of forced labor:

United Arab Emirates law prohibits forced labor or any other practice that may amount to the trafficking of persons under national law and international conventions. Yet the authorities rarely prosecute forced labor and human trafficking cases, if ever. 

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 labor practices that migrant workers are facing. Although the Expo organizers developed higher labor 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.”

UAE must address the disconnect between formal protections and the reality of forced labor practices 

The United Arab Emirates has announced a series of labor reforms which came into effect on February 2, 2022. But the reforms do not address the non-compliance of existing protections by businesses because of weak enforcement by the authorities. Trade unionism will continue to be illegal in the Emirates leaving workers without the protection of representation necessary to voice their concerns without fear of retribution or losing their job. 

Mustafa Qadri said, “If women and men are being subjected to these exploitative practices at Expo 2020 Dubai, where the resources available for monitoring labor compliance and the standards applied are higher than the national labor regime, questions must be raised about the risks of forced labor and other forms of exploitation in the UAE more broadly.”  

With 192 country pavilions and some of the largest consumer brands as sponsors and partners, practically every major economy in the world is represented at Expo, including the United States, China, Japan, the United Kingdom, and India. The failure to protect migrant workers from forced labor practices at Expo also reflects the international community’s inability to conduct adequate human rights due diligence into the risks for migrant workers at Expo 2020 Dubai.  

Mustafa Qadri said, “Without active enforcement and recognition of workers’ rights to freedom of association, collective bargaining, and other trade union rights, the United Arab Emirates’ new labor laws will do little to address the country’s labor exploitation crisis.”

Equidem is calling on the United Arab Emirates authorities to: 

  • Thoroughly investigate and enforce all labour laws, effectively implement the law prohibiting discrimination, and effectively execute equal pay for equal work. 
  • Ensure individuals and organisations responsible for the exploitation of migrant workers at Expo 2020 Dubai are brought to justice in line with international human rights standards. 
  • Revoke Resolution No.279 (2020), allowing companies to reduce migrant workers’ wages temporarily or permanently. 
  • Pass legislation recognising workers’ right to freely associate, organise, bargain and form a trade union in line with international labour conventions. 
  • Respect migrant workers’ right to freely change jobs without prior permission or penalties 
  • Publicly release labour complaint information through an independent and impartial mechanism. 
  • Permit independent observers to access the UAE to monitor the treatment of migrant workers and issue an open invitation to all United Nations Special Procedures so that independent UN experts can review the UAE’s compliance with its international human rights obligations.  
  • Provide long-term migrant workers with the opportunity to apply for permanent residency and citizenship.  

Equidem is also calling on states and businesses represented at Expo 2020 Dubai to conduct independent labor assessments on their sites at the megaproject. Where credible information of forced labor and other human rights violations are identified, these should be formally brought to the UAE authorities with a view to bringing perpetrators to justice and providing remedies to all victims. 

About Equidem 

Equidem is a human rights organization established by a group of international and grassroots human rights experts and activists in Africa, Asia, Europe, and the Middle East. We are a unique organization, with all our research in the Gulf carried out in-country by current and former low-wage migrant workers originally from Africa and Asia. 

In 2020, Equidem released a report, The Cost of Contagion, which highlighted the impact of the COVID-19 pandemic on 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 infection rates soared across the three countries. The report is the most extensive independent study into the human rights impacts of COVID on migrant workers in the Gulf. The report includes specific recommendations for the Saudi government, the United Arab Emirates, and Qatar to protect the human rights of the millions of migrant workers across the Gulf. 

 

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