OPINION: Expo’s bright lights cannot hide Dubai’s dark side of discrimination and forced labour

by Namrata Raju | @namrataraju | Equidem
Wednesday, 2 February 2022 09:00 GMT

People walk at the site of Dubai Expo 2020 in Dubai, United Arab Emirates January 16, 2021. REUTERS/Rula Rouhana

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* Any views expressed in this opinion piece are those of the author and not of Thomson Reuters Foundation.

The United Arab Emirates must address the plight of low-paid migrant workers

Namrata Raju is a labour rights advocate at Equidem, a human rights organisation

On February 2, the oil-rich kingdom of United Arab Emirates introduces a new labour law and with it promises of greater, wider protections for women and men at work. The Emirates is one of the richest nations on earth per capita, thanks in large part to an estimated 9 million mostly low-wage migrant workers from Africa, Asia and other parts of the world who service every facet of the economy and society.

The Emirates has spent big on attracting international businesses and travellers with sophisticated PR campaigns that paint an image of a modern, diverse and welcoming society. At the heart of this image is Expo 2020 Dubai, a $7 billion trade fair with pavilions from every major country.

Expo’s organisers talk about bringing cultures together and building a better future. But the reality for the migrant workers building and servicing this megaproject is starkly different.

Equidem research found that dozens of women and men from Africa and South Asia reported that they had experienced racial discrimination or bullying, and violations of their labour rights which are also indicative of forced labour.

“It’s very tiring. I work from early in the morning till evening. Never have I received overtime payments from my employer. The way they treat the staff is like slaves, I mean modern day slavery,” said Babik (not his real name), an Indian national working for a café at Expo 2020 Dubai.

Geche (not her real name), a Kenyan woman working in hospitality at Expo, said: “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.”

Other workers spoke of being charged illegal recruitment fees for their job, not receiving wages and benefits in time and in full, having their passports taken so that they could not travel abroad without prior permission from their employer, and facing difficulties or being unwilling to access formal complaint mechanisms.

United Arab Emirates law prohibits discrimination, forced labour and human trafficking. Yet the authorities rarely prosecute such cases, if ever.

There is 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. Although the Expo organisers developed higher labour standards than national laws and mechanisms to lodge complaints, workers are often too fearful of speaking out because of the real risk of punishment by employers or state authorities.

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.

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 Expo, including the United States, China, the United Kingdom, Japan, Germany, and India. The failure to protect migrant workers from forced labour practices at Expo also reflects the sacrifice of human rights at the altar of good trading relationships with wealthy but restrictive countries like the United Arab Emirates.

The Emirates’s new labour laws, taking effect today, do not address the non-compliance of existing protections by business because of weak enforcement by the authorities. Trade unionism will continue to be illegal in the Emirates leaving workers without the protection of representation necessary to voice their concerns without fear of retribution or losing their job.

Without active enforcement and recognition of workers’ rights to freedom of association, collective bargaining, and other trade union rights, the United Arab Emirates new labour laws will do little to address the country’s labour exploitation crisis.

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