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One year to Expo 2020, UAE’s construction industry must do more to tackle abuse of migrant workers

21/10/19 - Adam Barnett, Communications Officer, BHRRC

Press release: New BHRRC snapshot finds migrant workers on UAE construction sites still face exploitation and abuse.

  • 62 new UAE construction projects awarded to companies that failed to show how they protect migrant workers
  • 2 contracts awarded to companies accused of labour abuse
  • At least 39 cases of alleged labour abuse since 2016, involving 4,600 migrant workers
  • $25.3 billion (66%) of contracts since January 2018 awarded by government-linked clients

London, UK – Major construction projects in the UAE have been awarded to companies with inadequate safeguards to protect migrant workers, according to a new report one year ahead of Expo 2020.

Read the briefing here.

The Expo 2020 will see an estimated 25 million people visit Dubai as the UAE showcases itself to the world. Yet 12 months ahead of the Expo’s launch, migrant workers on UAE construction sites continue to suffer exploitation and abuse - from heat stress and unsafe conditions to late or non-payment of wages and curbs on being able to change jobs.

A new report by Business & Human Rights Resource Centre (out today) finds 62 of the new construction projects awarded in UAE since January 2018 went to companies that have failed to disclose how they protect migrant workers.

Two contracts went to companies with records of alleged human rights abuses: Saudi firm the BinLadin Group and UAE company Al Arif Contracting.

The report also finds that the UAE government has a big role in awarding construction projects, with $25.3 billion - 66% of the contracts (by monetary value) - since January 2018 awarded by government bodies or companies fully or partially owned by the state.

This means the UAE government has a key responsibility to award contracts to companies that safeguard migrant workers’ rights, and to pay contractors on time to avoid delays to supply chain workers’ wages.

Diana Eltahawy, Gulf Programme Manager at Business & Human Rights Resource Centre, said:

“The Expo 2020 provides an opportunity to achieve lasting improvements in migrant workers’ welfare in the UAE beyond the coming period of international attention.  

“Migrant workers make up around 90% of UAE’s workforce. Yet despite 2017’s labour reforms, migrant workers remain tied to the kafala (sponsorship) system and are denied collective bargaining rights, leaving them vulnerable to exploitation and abuse.

“The construction industry – from the UAE government as a major client to companies and investors - has a responsibility to carry out human rights due diligence to safeguard the rights of all the workers in its supply chains.”

She added: “As Dubai sets the stage for the ‘World’s Greatest Show’, which it hopes will improve its public image and contribute to its economic growth, migrants workers who make it all possible must also benefit, starting with being afforded their most basic rights to timely and fair wages, to freedom of movement, and to work and live in safe and dignified conditions ”

The report is based on analysis of data in the Resource Centre’s Gulf Construction Tracker, which tracks investments into the six Gulf Cooperation Council countries, along with detailed surveys in 2016 and 2018 of construction companies’ human rights policies, and data on rights abuse allegations in the Gulf.

The UAE’s treatment of migrant workers has received less international scrutiny than Qatar’s ahead of the FIFA World Cup 2022, though the UAE has nearly five times as many migrant workers and similar working conditions.

The report includes guidance for clients, companies and investors in the UAE’s construction sector on how to avoid risk and protect migrant workers from abuse.



Media Contacts:

Adam Barnett, Communications Officer, Business & Human Rights Resource Centre, [email protected], +44 (0)7753 975769, +44 (0)20 7636 7774 

Diana Eltahawy, Gulf Programme Manager at Business & Human Rights Resource Centre, [email protected]


Notes to editor:

- Expo 2020 Dubai will begin on October 20th 2020 and run for six months.

- At least 260 construction projects have been awarded in the UAE since January 2018

- UAE has the second-largest construction market in the region after Saudi Arabia, with at least USD $38 billion in contracts awarded since January 2018.