Exposing the Invisible: Migrant Workers’ Rights and the Legacy of Expo2020

With the closing of the Expo2020, BWI launched its report titled "Exposing the Invisible,"  analysing the legacy of the Expo on the situation of migrant workers in the United Arab and Emirates’ construction sector, and the possibility of creating positive and long-lasting labour reforms in the country.

Expo2020 in Dubai has once again highlighted the vulnerable situation of migrant workers in the Gulf. In the months running up to the opening of Expo2020, reports on severe violations of migrant workers’ rights in the country have intensified. At the height of construction work, there were 44,000 workers in the Expo site, all sectors combined. This is a migrant workforce that, to a large extent, has faced extreme working conditions, including fatal heat-linked work stress, and a legal system that, in practice, still supports a Kafala system and the lack of freedom of association and expression. 

At the same time, there are few opportunities to access and contact the migrant workforce. 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 International 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. However, the information that does manage to get out indicates severe violations of human rights, including: 

  • Illegal and unethical recruitment violations, including contract substitutions and retention of passports; 
  • Excessive working hours; 
  • Salary delays and wage theft (i e illegal deductions from salaries); 
  • Unsanitary living and working 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; 
  • Violation of freedom of association; 
  • Poor access to justice (lengthy mediation /court procedures); and 
  • Differences in immigration and visa regimes depending on the emirate and the free trade zones. 

These serious issues have been raised with the government, and a labour law reform legislation was adopted in 2017, with significant additional reforms passed in 2022. But questions remain on the effect of these reforms on migrant workers, and what legacy, if any, will Expo2020 have on the country’s labour conditions, and other abuses suffered by migrant workers in the country.

The report highlights how the “legacy” is not a long term commitment to labour rights, but besotted with short-term private solutions. It also accounts the great hesitation to commit to international standards and modernization, and the abolition of the Kefala system.