Debt bondage, forced labor and discrimination: How migrant workers, including many Nepalis, are suffering in Dubai

Dubai is currently hosting Expo 2020 Dubai. Migrant workers working on the Expo projects face a host of problems including forced labor, debt bondage, delays and non-payment of wages, passport retention, threats and harassment.

Migrant workers on a construction site in Dubai. Photo: IPS

Deepika Thapaliya

  • Read Time 4 min.

Migrant workers working at Expo 2020 Dubai, the first of its kind and one of the largest projects in the Arab Gulf region, are facing serious human rights and labor rights abuses. Equidem, a human rights organization working globally and locally, published a report recently that reveals how the workers engaged across various projects at Expo are being subjected to discrimination and forced labor practices.

The city of Dubai in the United Arab Emirates, one of the richest countries in the world, is currently hosting Expo 2020 a mega project in the region where the UAE government has invested an estimated seven billion US dollars and is expecting to welcome 25 million visitors during its six months of operation. Dubbed as the ‘world’s greatest show’, Expo was built by migrant workers who are also playing a vital role in delivering a range of services on site.

Case of Expo 2020 Dubai

The research conducted by Equidem in the last six months is based on interviews with migrant workers from 11 different countries, including Nepal, working on the Expo projects. A majority of the workers interviewed have reported violations that are indicative of forced labor, like illegal recruitment charges and debt bondage, delays and non-payment of wages, passport retention, and threats and harassment.

More than half of the workers interviewed said they had to pay recruitment fees. The UAE has adopted the Employer Pays Principle and its law requires recruitment costs to be borne by the employer. However, workers were charged up to Rs 250,000 to secure a job at the Expo. Workers also claimed that their employers were well aware of workers being charged with recruitment fees, but there were no interventions from the employers’ side.

Rudra (name changed), a Nepali migrant worker working as a security guard at the Expo, said, “I had to pay 200,000 Nepalese Rupees (US$1,652) to the recruitment agency. I came to know only after I came here that it was a free visa, free ticket job where employers had to pay for my recruitment and flight costs. I had no choice but to give the money to secure my employment.”

One-third of the workers interviewed said they did not get the contract in their native language. They were not aware of what they were agreeing to when they signed the contract. It is crucial that workers understand the terms and conditions of their employment clearly to ensure workers are not subjected to forced labor practices.

Non-payment of wages and benefits was further exacerbated by the Covid-19 pandemic and it is still a core issue faced by many migrant workers in the region. The UAE has adopted various measures, including establishing Wage Protection System to pay workers. However, Equidem’s report shows that workers at Expo are still being deprived of what they are owed. Two-thirds of workers said their wages and benefits were not paid on time or in full. Workers faced unprecedented salary cuts, late payment, non-payment of salary, overtime and annual increments.

Passport confiscation is widespread across the region including in Expo. Only one of the workers said that he had his passport with him. This is in direct violation of UAE’s law as well as Expo’s Workers Welfare Policy, which prohibits employers from confiscating employees’ passports.

UAE law prohibits discrimination and hatred on the basis of caste, race, religion or ethnic origin. But the workers interviewed report having faced discrimination and/or bullying in their workplace. Nepali and other migrant workers find themselves with lesser opportunities as a result of discrimination based on nationality and/or race which favors Emirati nationals and Europeans. There is also discrimination in the payment of salaries for migrant workers. “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…” said Irfan (name changed), a Pakistani national working for Expo 2020.

Laws and realities

The UAE government has adopted laws, policies and is part of various regional and international commitments aimed at protecting rights of the migrant workers. Additionally, the Expo has its own set of Workers Welfare Policy and Assurance Standards to ensure the protection of migrant workers. Despite these, the state has failed to protect migrant workers and their rights. Not only Equidem’s report but various other reports have brought to light serious labor rights violations in the UAE, which has been of concern for international community.

The UAE should take immediate actions to enforce labor laws and effectively implement laws prohibiting discrimination. Strong actions should be taken to bring to justice individuals and organizations responsible for labor exploitation at the Expo 2020 Dubai.

The Expo has established labor complaint grievance mechanisms as part of wide-ranging worker welfare standards. However, none of the workers reported the problems they faced at work. Workers are unwilling to file complaints because of fear of reprisal or thinking that it will not help address their problems. All the workers interviewed had expressed their intense fear of reprisal. Some were unaware of the process to initiate such complaints.

Workers who are trying to escape abusive working conditions face considerable challenges. UAE law allows workers to change their jobs. But this is very difficult to do in practice as an individual’s work permit and right to remain in the UAE is still linked to their sponsor and employment contract. Workers are not free to leave their jobs and legally remain in the country while looking for another one, which pushes them further into the cycle of exploitation and vulnerability to forced labor.

On paper, the UAE has a robust system to protect the rights of migrant workers. Equidem’s research shows how disconnected the system is from the realities on the ground. The UAE authorities are failing to properly monitor and enforce the laws. Trade unionism is still illegal, leaving workers without the protection of representation necessary to voice their concerns without fear of retribution or losing their jobs. The UAE should take immediate actions to enforce labor laws and effectively implement laws prohibiting discrimination. In addition, strong actions should be taken to bring to justice individuals and organizations responsible for labor exploitation at the Expo 2020 Dubai in line with international human rights standards.

Deepika Thapaliya, an advocate, is labor rights researcher at Equidem Nepal, a human rights organization based in Kathmandu. She has been working on labor rights issues faced by Nepali migrant workers in major destination countries, predominantly the Gulf for the past three years. Most recently, she worked closely in ‘The Cost of Contagion’ report published by Equidem. 

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