DUBAI, United Arab Emirates — On Saturday, Dubai’s Expo 2020 gave contradictory statistics for the number of employees murdered on-site during the huge world’s fair’s construction, first stating five and then saying three.
Expo subsequently apologized and called the first number an “error” in a statement.” Authorities had refused for months to provide any data for construction-related deaths in the run-up to the $7 billion fair rising from the desert outside Dubai, meant to boost the city’s international prestige and attract millions of tourists.
The contradictory remarks occurred as the event and the UAE as a whole have long been chastised by human rights campaigners for their treatment of low-wage migrant workers from Africa, Asia, and the Middle East who keep the country’s economy humming.
At a news conference on Saturday morning, Expo spokeswoman Sconaid McGeachin remarked flatly, “We’ve had five fatalities already,” adding, “You know, that’s clearly a tragedy that anyone would die.”
Expo, however, issued a statement just after 5 p.m. Saturday, hours after an Associated Press article quoted McGeachin, saying: “Unfortunately, there have been three work-related fatalities (and) 72 significant injuries to date.” Expo released a second statement shortly after 7 p.m., apologizing for “the error.”
Expo claimed that its 200,000 workers put in over 240 million hours to construct the massive fairgrounds from the ground up. Despite repeated requests from the Associated Press and other media over the last year, officials have not provided any general figures on worker fatalities, injuries, or coronavirus infections.
The admission comes after the European Parliament encouraged countries not to participate in Expo, citing the UAE’s “inhumane practices against migrant workers” that intensified during the epidemic, according to the European Parliament. Businesses and construction firms are “coercing employees into signing untranslated paperwork, seizing their passports, subjecting them to long hours in hazardous weather, and supplying them with unclean housing” ahead of Expo, according to a resolution passed last month.
Authorities were also aware of incidents involving contractors “withholding passports,” participating in questionable “recruitment tactics,” and breaching workplace safety rules, according to McGeachin.
“We took efforts to ensure things were handled and very much interfered in situations on that,” she added, without going into detail.
Workers in the UAE are unable to form unions and have limited rights, frequently working long hours for little compensation and living in deplorable circumstances. Most foreign employees arrive at the UAE and other oil-rich Arab states through recruiting agencies, as part of a sponsorship system that binds their residency status to their professions and gives their employers disproportionate influence.
Even those visiting the site on its first day, Friday, were exposed to the scorching early fall heat, with some tourists passing out in the stifling heat of 40 degrees Celsius (104 degrees Fahrenheit).
French Foreign Minister Jean-Yves Le Drian told a press conference on the fairgrounds Saturday to commemorate France’s National Day at Expo, saying his country was “not part” of the European Parliament motion calling for a boycott of Dubai’s global fair.
When asked about worries about labor violations on the job, Le Drian replied, “Our relationship with the United Arab Emirates is a vital one, it’s extremely close.” “If we need to communicate with the government of the United Arab Emirates, we do it behind closed doors.”
At the press briefing, no Emirati official was present.