Expo2020: Migrant workers’ rights in UAE

(Photo: bnreport.com)

As Expo2020 opens in Dubai this month, serious violations of migrant workers’ rights continue in the UAE. Although there have been some reforms in the kafala system, those changes are unevenly enforced, and migrant workers are still without any representation or voice. Expo2020 is an occasion to take urgent action to implement reforms and make further steps to ensure that universal human rights, including the human rights of workers, are protected and respected in the UAE.

Expo organisers have reported that three workers died in accidents during the six years it has taken to build Expo and three other workers died after contracting COVID-19. Seventy-three people suffered severe injuries requiring three or more days off work. These deaths and injuries are too many. In parallel, conditions are much worse in the rest of the construction industry in the country, as the worker welfare unit’s reach and its interventions are limited to the Expo. 

Experience shows that the greatest progress on occupational health and safety can be achieved if expertise is combined with the participation of workers and their representatives. Within the Expo, conditions have improved due to the workers’ welfare units’ interventions and enforcement measures. Still, it would be more effective and have a more significant impact with bottom-up as well as top-down action and cooperation in the construction sector. 

As an organisation that brings together workers globally through their trade unions, BWI also reach out as best it can to workers who are not allowed to have independent representation. 

As part of these efforts to understand workers’ concerns and help them improve the protection of their rights, BWI has heard from workers in the UAE concerning violations of their rights. Common violations reported include:

  • Recruitment violations incl. contract substitutions, and retention of passports;
  • Excessive working hours;
  • Salary delays and wage theft;
  • Unsanitary living conditions and overcrowded accommodations;
  • Mass arrests and deportations; 
  • Lack of adequate protection of occupational health and safety;
  • Lack of social protection;
  • Failure to protect freedom of expression; and
  • Violation of freedom of association.

At the same time, there are too few opportunities to access and contact migrant workers in the UAE. Trade unions are not permitted, and BWI and other global union federations are not allowed to operate in the country. There are also limitations imposed on human rights organisations, such as Human Rights Watch, Amnesty and Migrant-Rights.org, which have continued to raise concerns about severe rights abuses for migrant workers in the country. Even human rights experts and assigned special rapporteurs from the United Nations have been denied access, cooperation and transparency from the authorities.

On its website, Expo 2020 explains: We all have the power to build a better world and shape the future. Discover what makes Expo 2020 Dubai unique and how we’re ‘Connecting Minds and Creating the Future’ through sustainability, mobility and opportunity. But the mission of ‘Connecting Minds and Creating the Future’ is just a slogan if there is no access to migrant workers, trade unions, international organisations, and global unions. It is time that the Expo2020 to provide the platform for a genuine dialogue on protecting and improving the rights of migrant workers in UAE and in the region. 

Moreover, Expo 2020 Dubai is an international event. BWI, therefore, calls on the Expo to act in that international framework, which includes respecting and promoting human rights, including worker rights. Use this visible and important opportunity to facilitate a dialogue on creating a better future for migrant workers and give hope to migrant workers of a better future elsewhere.