“ We seek to build a better future for everyone while creating real impact that transforms our dreams into realities.”- EXPO 2020 DUBAI WEBSITE
“ It’s very tiring. I work from early in the morning till evening … They promised me an increment in salary 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.” – BABIK, AN INDIAN NATIONAL WORKING FOR A CAFÉ AT EXPO 2020 DUBAI
The city of Dubai in the oil-rich Gulf kingdom of the United Arab Emirates (UAE) styles itself as an international hub for tourism, business, and culture. At the heart of this image is Expo 2020 Dubai, one of the largest megaprojects in the region and the first world expo held in the Middle East. Expo 2020 Dubai, delayed to 2021 due to the COVID-19 pandemic, features 192 national pavilions. It is expected to attract 25 million visitors during the six months of operation between October 1st, 2021 and March 31st, 2022, and potentially millions more after the Expo ends and the site is converted into District 2020 to attract business, high-tech innovation, and a residential population to the area. Expo 2020 Dubai could not have taken place without migrant workers who make up more than 90% of private sector employees in the UAE. These women and men were integral to building the infrastructure for the event, with more than 40,000 workers employed in the construction process alone. Similarly, the delivery of the Expo requires thousands of additional migrant workers to perform a range of services, including in facilities management, security, hospitality and cleaning.
Equidem research between September and December 2021 reveals that migrant workers engaged on projects at Expo 2020 Dubai across a range of sectors – from hospitality and retail to construction and security – are being subjected to forced labour practices. These practices violate UAE law yet, as far as Equidem is aware, none have been investigated by the authorities, nor has any individual or business been brought to account. Workers also spoke of being subjected to racial discrimination and bullying, and a reluctance to make formal complaints about their treatment out of fear of reprisals from employers or the authorities. This is despite Expo organisers establishing labour complaint grievance mechanisms as part of wide-ranging worker welfare standards that are meant to apply to all individuals working at the event and which establish a higher threshold of protection than under the UAE’s labour laws.
The great majority of migrant workers interviewed for this research reported that they had experienced violations of their labour rights which are also indicative of forced labour:
25 interviewees (83%) paid illegal recruitment fees and/or did not receive wages or other benefits on time and in full 11 interviewees (37%) reported three or more issues at work which are indicators of forced labour
5 interviewees (20%) reported five or more issues at work which are indicators of forced labour UAE law prohibits forced labour or any other practice that may amount to trafficking of persons under national law and international conventions.
Yet the UAE rarely prosecutes forced labour and human trafficking cases, if ever.
“ My expectation was high when I came to Dubai, I thought these people will accept me for who I am, but as a migrant and being an African, I have gone through many bad experiences. I have been bullied based on my race. I have experienced that employees are not treated by the management equally. I am a first-class degree holder in my country and I have good work experience, (but) the guy who had less qualification and experience than me got a good position.” – FADHILI, A GHANAIAN SECURITY GUARD AT EXPO 2020 DUBAI
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.”
“Yes, they discriminate a lot when it comes to dividing work, the Asians are given heavy work and less pay while the Europeans and Arabs are given lighter roles with lots of income. … The Asians were the first to lose their jobs which they work so hard for…” – IRFAN, A PAKISTANI CONSTRUCTION WORKER AT EXPO 2020 DUBAI
“ There is a lot of discrimination amongst the nationalities at work. I witnessed a lot of discrimination, especially dark-skinned employees who didn’t have anyone to speak on their behalf when the company was looking to fire staff. Some of the workers were given redundancy but especially among the Africans, they were given redundancy without pay.” – GHECHE, WORKING IN HOSPITALITY AT EXPO 2020 DUBAI
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.12 Sabir, who works for a private security firm, at Expo 2020 Dubai said, “I paid an amount of 100,000 Indian Rupees (US$1,322) for the recruitment agency. … The company knows about the processing charge because it routinely hires recruitment agencies to facilitate their work when they need a lot of employees.”
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. Expo 2020 Dubai Worker Welfare Policy also requires employers to pay employees’ wages and benefits on time and in full. Gheche, working in hospitality at Expo 2020 Dubai told Equidem, “I feel like they should improve the living and working conditions. … They promised they would review the salary every year which they didn’t do. … They never paid my overtime.”
“ I never received any overtime and am always working for more than nine hours every day.” – IRFAN, A PAKISTANI CONSTRUCTION WORKER AT EXPO 2020 DUBAI
About the workers interviewed
69 one-on-one interviews with migrant workers in Dubai working at Expo 2020 Dubai (30 semi-structured interviews and 39 unstructured interviews) between September and December 2021. All worker names changed to protect their identity 11 different nationalities
77% of workers interviewed were from Bangladesh, India, Kenya, Nepal and Pakistan. The rest were from 6 different African countries 22 of the interviewees were men (73%) and 8 were women (27%) 33 the average age of the women and men interviewed, whose ages ranged from 24 to 42.
Retention of Passports
Only one of the workers interviewed by Equidem was in possession of their passport, and both he and other interviewees stated that it was common practice for companies to retain their employees’ travel documents. 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. Chandra, a security guard at Expo 2020 Dubai told Equidem, “My employer has my passport. 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.”
“My employer has my passport. After we started working at the site, the site’s worker welfare person gave instructions to the company saying they had to return workers’ passports. 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.”19 – CHANDRA, A NEPALI SECURITY GUARD AT EXPO 2020 DUBAI
Workers not accessing 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. Fadhili, a security guard at Expo 2020 Dubai said, “I have never raised any complaint on the bullying, because I know there will not be any change if I make any complaint. I want to continue my job as I have some financial problems.”20 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 and a third of participants stated that they were not given a copy of their contract in their native language.22 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.
All 69 individuals interviewed for this report spoke of their intense fear of reprisals from employers or the Emirati authorities, such as the police, for talking about their situation. Equidem took significant precautions to prevent and mitigate any adverse impact on researchers and the individuals who spoke to them. Equidem wrote to the UAE authorities, Expo 2020 Dubai organisers and individual businesses about the cases documented in this report. Equidem spoke to a representative of Expo 2020 Dubai responsible for worker welfare who said she could not comment as it was a matter for the event’s Higher Committee. As at the time of publication, neither Expo 2020 Dubai’s Higher Committee nor the UAE authorities had responded, despite being notified in writing before publication of this report. Only two out of thirteen companies contacted regarding complaints about working conditions made any response to Equidem. Conclusion Expo 2020 Dubai companies not complying with Worker Welfare Standards None of the companies employing the 30 migrant workers interviewed at length for this research were fully complying with their contractual obligations as set out in the Worker Welfare Policy and accompanying Assurance Standards or the UAE’s labour laws. This ranged from not properly performing their due diligence (e.g. checking whether recruitment fees had been paid or providing employees with written information on their rights at work) for being involved or complicit in breaking laws (e.g. not paying wages in full and on time, retaining passports or allowing recruitment fees to be charged).
“ I paid a commission of about US$50 to be able to go through the interview – I didn’t see the reason why they were asking for it. … I came to learn that it was illegal after paying the recruitment fees and I inquired, but then the person who gave us the job told us it was a way of thanking him for letting me through the job, I wasn’t satisfied fully, but I had to accept it and move on with life.” – HIARI, A ZIMBABWEAN SECURITY GUARD AT EXPO 2020 DUBAI
“ I have been working in UAE for 15 years and none of my employers has given any information about my rights as an employee.” – JWALA, AN INDIAN SECURITY GUARD AT EXPO 2020 DUBAI
“ They didn’t provide the contract to me. I signed the contract paper and gave it back to the employer. The offer letter was described in English. All the official papers are explained in English and Arabic and we didn’t get any written documents in our native language.” – RAZ, A PAKISTANI SECURITY GUARD AT EXPO 2020 DUBAI
UAE failing to protect migrant workers from forced labour Expo 2020
- Dubai companies not complying with Worker Welfare Standards
- UAE authorities not enforcing labour protections
- Prohibition on trade unionism limits worker access to remedies
- New UAE labour law doesn’t address non-compliance and lack of enforcement
UAE authorities not enforcing labour protections The UAE authorities are also failing to properly monitor and enforce the law. This research found numerous examples of labour rights violations involving unpaid overtime, salary deductions, bullying and discrimination, passport confiscation and recruitment charges. However, in 2020, the labour inspectorate only identified two cases across the whole of the UAE in which any of the above abuses took place. Similarly, more than a third (37%) of participants in this research reported three or more issues at work which are indicators of forced labour, yet the UAE has never convicted anyone for a forced labour offence. Prohibition on trade unionism limits worker access to remedies The procedures for resolving issues at work and remedying labour rights violations are not working effectively, as reflected in the fact that none of the 30 interviewees used them to try and address the problems they were having at work. One of the key reasons for this is that an employee’s ability to assert their rights is severely compromised by the fact that the UAE does not permit workers to freely associate or join an independent union. This makes it extremely difficult for an employee to access advice and support in a dispute at work or to successfully challenge a decision taken by their employer. New UAE labour law does not address non-compliance and lack of enforcement On 2 February 2022, Federal Law No.33 of 2021 comes into effect and updates the labour regulations governing the private sector.
While this new law does contain some significant reforms which should be welcomed (e.g. the introduction of a minimum wage; a prohibition on all forms of discrimination; and the introduction of new visa categories), it is too early to assess what practical impact it will have as many of the details will be determined in regulations (e.g. what the minimum wage will be and how workers will change their sponsors under the new visa regime). However, it is clear that Federal Law No.33 does little to address non-compliance with existing legislation by employers or the inadequate investigation and enforcement of the regulations by the UAE authorities. Both these issues are serious problems, as is evidenced in this report. Furthermore, the new law does not correct the imbalance of power between migrant workers and their employers which makes it difficult for those experiencing labour rights abuses to seek or obtain effective remedies. Federal Law No.33 does not amend the current legislation to permit migrant workers to freely associate, organise, bargain collectively or form trade unions, nor does it guarantee workers access to independent and professional advice and representation to assist them in taking forward a complaint. UAE must address disconnect between formal protections and reality of forced labour practices On paper, the UAE and Expo 2020 Dubai have established robust requirements for the protection of migrant worker’s labour rights. Despite this, Equidem has uncovered non-compliance across a range of labour law and welfare standards and in multiple different sectors. This indicates a significant disconnect between the Emirate’s stated ambition of being a modern, international state and the reality of racial discrimination and forced labour practices that migrant workers are facing.
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 the Expo. The UAE’s failure to protect migrant workers from forced labour also exposes its foreign state allies and international business partners at serious risk of liability for human rights violations in the country. If women and men are being subjected to these exploitative practices at Expo 2020 Dubai, where the resources available for monitoring labour compliance and the standards applied are higher than the national labour regime, questions must be raised about the risks of forced labour and other forms of exploitation in the UAE more broadly. Without active enforcement and recognition of workers’ rights to freedom of association, collective bargaining, and other trade union rights, the UAE’s new labour laws will do little to address the country’s labour exploitation crisis.
Summary of recommendations (see 3.1 for full list) Equidem is calling on the United Arab Emirates authorities to:
- Investigate and enforce all labour laws, effectively implement the law prohibiting discrimination, and effectively execute equal pay for equal work.
- Bring to justice individuals and organisations responsible for the exploitation of migrant workers at Expo 2020 Dubai 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 access to 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 labour assessments on their sites at the megaproject. Where credible information of forced labour 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.
Read full report here.
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