Intent on making a flawless impression as the first host of the world's fair in the Middle East Dubai sought to leave nothing to chance.
It poured billions of dollars into its pristine fairgrounds and jubilant festivities that opened last month, aiming for 25 million visits to the pandemic-delayed Expo 2020.
Propping up the world's fair is the United Arab Emirates’ contentious labor system that long has drawn accusations of mistreating workers. Highly sensitive to its image and aware that Expo attracts more attention to its labor practices, Dubai has held companies on the project to higher-than-normal standards of worker treatment. Contractors offer benefits and better wages to Expo workers, compared with elsewhere in the country, and many are grateful for the jobs.
Yet according to human rights groups and interviews with over two dozen workers, violations have persisted, underpinned by the UAE's labor sponsorship system. It relies on complicated chains of foreign subcontracts, ties workers’ residency to their jobs and gives outsized power to employers.
Among the complaints are workers having to pay exorbitant and illegal fees to local recruiters in order to work at the world's fair; employers confiscating their passports; broken promises on wages; crowded and unsanitary living conditions in dormitories; substandard or unaffordable food; and up to 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 Research, a labor rights consultancy that recently reported on the mistreatment of Expo workers during the pandemic.
When questioned by The Associated Press, Expo organizers did not comment but referred to their previous statement in response to Equidem’s report, saying Expo takes worker welfare “extremely seriously” and requires all contractors to comply with standards “formulated from international best practice.”
Expo's statement acknowledged the workers' “most regularly raised topics of concern” involved “wage payments and food,” without elaborating. It said authorities have “worked directly with contractors to remedy both immediately.”
“Some cases have been identified where accommodation facilities have been found to not be in line with UAE legal requirements,” it added. “In such cases we work with a contractor to move workers to adequate accommodation facilities.”
Citing labor abuses at Expo and other human rights concerns, the European Parliament has urged a boycott of the event. The UAE called the resolution “factually incorrect," without elaborating.
Emirati authorities did not respond to the AP's repeated requests for comment.
PAYING A HIGH PRICE TO WORK
Mohammed, 27, is among scores of workers who clean the fairgrounds eight hours a day. A ceramic-tile salesman in Ghana, he’d dreamed of life in the skyscraper-studded cities of the Persian Gulf and the chance to send badly needed cash to his parents and six brothers and sisters.
A recruiter in Ghana's southern city of Kumasi had promised him over $500 a month, including food and housing, Mohammed said. But to get the job, he’d have to pay a fee of $1,150, using years of savings. The agent assured him that he’d make that back in no time.
When he arrived, however, Mohammed learned he was to earn as little as $190 a month, and the promised food was undercooked rice and sausage he couldn't stomach, forcing him to buy meals. He said the Abu Dhabi-based contractor that sponsored his work visa appeared to have no idea he had paid a small fortune to recruiters, a common practice in the UAE despite a government ban.
For six months of work, 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 after Expo officials warned them against talking to journalists.
Thousands of low-wage laborers from Africa, Southeast Asia and the Middle East, barred from forming unions, toil up to 70 hours a week at Expo, living in crowded, dormitory-style housing, according to the workers and labor rights researchers.
They’re among millions from poor countries who come to Gulf Arab sheikhdoms to create massive government projects and serve small local populations as construction and domestic workers, janitors, cooks, garbage collectors and guards.
PACKED DORMS, ONE TOILET FOR 80 WORKERS
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 wages and termination benefits.
Some were deprived of their identification documents, unable to change jobs or leave the country. Others were fired without warning and got stranded in the UAE. Several told of plunging into debt over high recruiting fees.
Those interviewed for Equidem's report were primarily from India and Pakistan, attracted by average salaries of $300 a month, along with room and board. Many lived in packed accommodations that in one case saw 12 people crammed in a room and in another had over 80 people sharing a single toilet as the coronavirus coursed across the country.
Equidem reported that these issues specifically plagued four major UAE-based service and construction contractors: Ghantoot Gulf Contracting, Transguard Security, Al Naboodah Construction Group and JML Facades. All continue to operate at Expo.
Transguard said it complied fully with UAE labor laws and "makes every effort to ensure that all our practices are legal and ethical,” including “strict adherence to regulations that require salaries be paid in full and on time.” Transguard Group is a subsidiary of the state conglomerate that also owns the long-haul airline Emirates.
The other three companies did not respond to requests for comment.
In interviews with the AP, over two dozen workers described other forms of exploitation, with inadequate food a central concern. Many complained of long hours in hazardous heat. Several workers from West Africa and Pakistan said they'd paid hundreds of dollars in recruiting fees to unscrupulous agents, as Mohammed did. Others said employers confiscated their passports.
Expo’s worker welfare policy demands employers “ensure fair and free recruitment" and “respect the right of employees to retain their personal documents."
‘WORK, SLEEP, WORK, SLEEP’
Eric a cleaner from Cameroon, said he and his colleagues protested to Dubai-based Emrill Services about the lack of kitchen access and affordable food but got no response. They make less than $300 a month, with no food allowance.
Desperate to cover his younger brothers’ school fees at home, Eric said he can't buy more than a plate or two of spaghetti from the canteen, and three meals a day would cost over half his salary.
“Everyone is complaining that the food is too expensive,” he said. “We don’t eat to our satisfaction because if you do, you will have no salary by the month’s end."
In response to a request for comment, Emrill promised to investigate the complaints, saying it “takes employee well-being very seriously.”
Various companies at Expo offer workers free food or allow them to cook their own. Others provide a food allowance of some $80 a month, although several workers said that without refrigerators or easy kitchen access, they live on sour milk and store-bought bread.
Guards at the Expo entrance working for Abu Dhabi-based construction company Arkan said they were promised hot meals at a cafeteria during the break in an eight-hour shift. Despite repeatedly asking supervisors in the past three months, the guards received nothing, leaving them hungry throughout the day. Arkan did not respond to requests for comment.
In other cases, management has been more responsive. When one staffer from Malawi said he mobilized workers angered by their monotonous rice diet to complain to their bosses at ADNH Compass, the food improved, with meat options added.
“It’s a strange feeling,” said a 30-year-old janitor from Togo. “Your mother, your father, your nephew, your uncle, they call you and think (because) you travel, you’re a rich man. They don’t know you're not eating.”
Expo’s security guards are ubiquitous — predominantly African men in black polo shirts, stationed across the vast, sunbaked grounds. They work the longest hours — typically 13-hour shifts, including a 40-minute lunch. The grind begins at dawn when buses pull up to their enormous dormitories near Dubai’s port and airport.
Aside from brief breaks, they spend hours in the withering weather. Many began in July and August, as the fair prepared to open, when temperatures exceeded 50 degrees Celsius (120 degrees Fahrenheit) with high humidity. Recent research published in the Cardiology Journal on workers building stadiums for Qatar’s 2022 World Cup cited potentially fatal effects of heat on young laborers.
Adding to the pressures is the constant surveillance, many guards said, with managers threatening penalties and salary deductions for breaks that stretch too long, or accidental dozing.
“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, describing his manager’s threats at roll call. “We deserve more than 2,400 dirhams ($650 a month) for this kind of stress.”
Workers have little say over how they spend their days, shuttling back and forth between fairgrounds and dormitories, where four to six people share a room. For many, that lack of freedom is a core complaint of the labor system, where absconding from employers is grounds for arrest and deportation.
“Work, sleep, work, sleep. There's no freedom,” said a 40-year-old guard from Kenya. “The pressure is the same all over the UAE. You just need to try to survive one day to another.”
Although most workers interviewed said their employers returned their identity documents after applying for their visas, at least six people who wanted to keep their passports said they could not — another common practice outlawed in the UAE. A few cleaners with Emrill said they’d apparently signed consent forms they didn’t understand, allowing the company to hold their documents.
Emrill told the AP it respects workers' right to keep their documents, but “offers employees the option to keep any identification document, including passports, in the company safe for safekeeping.”
Dozens of other workers declined to talk to the AP, fearing revocation of their contract and other reprisals if they spoke about their concerns, even though Expo's policy requires companies to “allow employees freedom to exercise their legal rights without fear of reprisal."
One parking attendant said he was "bound by protocol not to answer a question from a journalist.”
Ahead of the global event, authorities failed to answer questions from journalists about worker deaths and injuries. As the fair opened, Expo officials gave conflicting figures for how many workers had been killed during construction.
Despite the difficult conditions, most cleaners, guards and parking attendants said they’re grateful for jobs that allow them to help their families back home. Their salaries far exceed what they’d make there or even what they’d earn for the same job in the parking lots of Dubai’s skyscrapers and marbled malls. Security guards at Expo earn about $55 more per month than they would outside it.
Many also feel they’re contributing to the event's efforts to unite countries and cultures.
At the fair's Jubilee Park, nestled between a stage and popular pub, a somber tribute to workers rises from the pavement. A roll call of the 200,000 people who worked at Expo over the years wraps around stone columns.
Although it is easy to miss, a small plaque on the monument reads: “Expo 2020 Dubai dedicates this monument to all our brothers and sisters who built the site.”