Organisers of Dubai’s Expo 2020 have acknowledged that five workers were killed on site during construction of the massive world’s fair.
Expo had previously said the 200,000 labourers who built the site worked 240 million hours, but had not offered any overall statistics on worker fatalities, injuries or coronavirus infections.
The admission came after the European Parliament last month urged nations not to take part in Expo, citing the United Arab Emirates’ “inhumane practices against foreign workers” that it said worsened during the pandemic.
Ahead of Expo, businesses and construction companies were “coercing workers into signing untranslated documents, confiscating their passports, exposing them to extreme working hours in unsafe weather conditions and providing them with unsanitary housing”, the resolution said.
At a press conference a day after the event’s opening, Expo spokesperson Sconaid McGeachin said the information about deaths was previously available to journalists and referred reporters to a press release about a monument honouring the labourers who built the site from scratch, which offered no additional details.
She said authorities would offer more information about casualties at a later, unspecified time.
Ms McGeachin also acknowledged that authorities were aware of cases involving contractors “withholding passports”, and suspect “recruitment practices” and workplace safety violations.
“We have taken steps to ensure those have been addressed and very much intervened in cases on that,” she said.
The UAE, an oil-rich sheikhdom that relies on low-paid migrant labour from Africa, Asia and Arab countries to keep its economy humming, faces long-standing criticism from human rights groups for treating workers poorly.
Officials have battled to present a positive image for Expo, the first world’s fair in the Middle East that aims to show off Dubai’s pride and draw millions of foreign visitors.
Labourers in the UAE are barred from unionisation and have few protections, often working long hours for little pay and living in substandard conditions.
Dubai’s searing early autumn heat proved hazardous even for those visiting the site on its opening day on Friday, with some tourists fainting in the humid 40C weather.