Intent on making a flawless impression as the first host of the world’s fair in the Middle East, Dubai poured billions of dollars the pandemic-delayed Expo 2020, hoping to attract 25 million visitors to its pristine fairgrounds and jubilant festivities that opened last month.
Propping up the world’s fair is the United Arab Emirates’ contentious labor system that long has drawn accusations of mistreating workers.
Dubai, highly sensitive to its image, is aware that Expo is drawing attention to its labor practices. It has held companies on the project to higher-than-normal standards of worker treatment. Contractors offer better wages and benefits to Expo workers, compared with elsewhere in the country, and many say they are grateful for the jobs.
But violations have persisted, according to human rights groups and interviews with over two dozen workers. Advocates blame the UAE’s labor sponsorship system that relies on chains of foreign subcontractors, ties workers’ residency to their jobs, and gives outsized power to employers.
Workers say they have had to pay exorbitant, illegal fees to local recruiters to work at the world’s fair; employers have confiscated their passports; promises are broken on wages; living conditions are crowded and unsanitary; food is substandard or expensive; and there are 70-hour workweeks in sometimes brutal heat.
“You can have the best standards in the world, but if you have this inherent power imbalance, workers are in a situation where they’re at risk of exploitation all the time,” said Mustafa Qadri, executive director of Equidem, a labor rights consultancy that recently reported on Expo workers’ mistreatment during the pandemic.
Expo organizers referred to their previous statement in response to Equidem’s report, saying Expo takes worker welfare “extremely seriously.”
The statement acknowledged that the workers’ “most regularly raised topics of concern” involved “wage payments and food,” without elaborating.
While expo have yet to answer questions about alleged worker mistreatment, including reports of illegal recruitment fees and confiscated passports.
Citing labor abuses at Expo and other human rights concerns, the European Parliament urged a boycott of the event. The UAE called the resolution “factually incorrect,” without elaborating.
Mohammed, 27, one of scores of workers who sweep the vast fairgrounds eight hours a day, said he landed the job through a recruiter in his hometown in southern Ghana who promised him over $500 a month — food and housing included. First, however, he had to pay a fee of $1,150, using years of savings, although the agent assured him he’d quickly make that back.
When he arrived, Mohammed learned he would earn as little as $190 a month. In six months, he would make less than what he paid to get the job.
“If I had known, I never would have come,” said Mohammed, who asked to be identified by only his first name because he feared reprisals. Most workers interviewed by the AP spoke on condition of anonymity out of fear of losing their jobs.
Equidem documented multiple cases of abuse at Expo’s construction site when the pandemic began. Workers described going hungry as employers withheld up to five months of promised wages and termination benefits.
Some were deprived of their documents, unable to change jobs or leave the country. Many lived in packed accommodations, in one case with over 80 people sharing a single toilet.
Expo workers interviewed by the AP described other forms of exploitation, with inadequate food a central concern. Many complained of long hours in withering heat. Several workers from West Africa and Pakistan said they’d paid hundreds of dollars to recruiters. Others claimed employers confiscated their passports, with the lack of freedom a core complaint of a system where absconding from employers is grounds for arrest and deportation.
Eric, a cleaner from Cameroon, said he and his colleagues protested to Dubai-based Emrill Services about expensive food and the lack of kitchen access but got no response. They make less than $300 a month, with no food allowance.
“We don’t eat to our satisfaction, because if you do, you will have no salary by the month’s end,” he said.
In response to a request for comment, Emrill promised to investigate the complaints, saying it “takes employee well-being very seriously.”
Guards at the Expo entrance working for Abu Dhabi-based construction company Arkan said they were promised hot meals during their break in an eight-hour shift. Despite repeatedly asking supervisors for the past three months, the guards received nothing, leaving them hungry throughout the day. Arkan did not respond to requests for comment.
Expo’s security guards work the longest hours — 13-hour shifts, including a 40-minute lunch. Aside from brief breaks, they spend hours in the withering weather. Temperatures in Dubai regularly exceeded 50 degrees Celsius (120 degrees Fahrenheit) in the summer.
They described constant surveillance, with managers threatening salary deductions and other penalties for accidentally dozing or for breaks that stretch too long.
“If you show up late for attendance, if you close your eyes on the job, if you go inside too many times, you’ll lose pay for a day at least,” said one Indian guard with Dubai-based First Security Group at Expo.
At least six people said they could not hold onto their passports. A few cleaners said they’d apparently signed consent forms they didn’t understand, allowing the company to confiscate their documents for safekeeping — an outlawed practice that nonetheless is rampant in the UAE.
Despite the difficulties, most of the workers said they’re grateful for salaries that far exceed what they would make back home or even what they’d make in the same job elsewhere in Dubai. Many also feel they’re contributing to the world’s fair’s efforts to unite countries and cultures.
But others find drudgery in the days spent shuttling back and forth between fairgrounds and dormitories, where four to six people share a room.
“Work, sleep, work, sleep. There’s no freedom,” said a 40-year-old guard from Kenya. “You just need to try to survive one day to another.”