Foreign workers stand in line to board a bus transporting them to their workplace in Dubai on April 2, 2020. Photo: AFP / Karim Sahib

It was, of course, only a matter of time before the sniping began. No sooner had Dubai’s Covid-delayed Expo 2020 opened its doors than Western media were full of stories highlighting the deaths and injuries among the site’s migrant construction workers. The implication is that the workforce was ill-treated and forced to work in unsafe conditions, and that the number of accidents and fatalities was extraordinary. None of this is true.

Over the six years of its construction, the Expo 2020 site has proved to be a far safer environment for its workers than that found on average in the European construction industry. But facts have rarely hampered negative coverage of Dubai, a city whose astonishing growth and success never fail to provoke envy in Western coverage of events in the Arab Gulf states.

According to Reuters, three workers died in accidents during the six years it has taken to build Expo 2020. This figure is confirmed by the organizers, who add that one of the victims was from Bangladesh, another from Pakistan and a third from Germany.

Expo 2020 also says three other workers died after contracting Covid-19 – one was in construction, the other two worked in a site office.

All deaths and injuries are regrettable, yet on a project of this scale they are unavoidable. In fact, one death every two years is little short of a miracle, and speaks volumes about the health and safety standards that have been rigorously enforced at Expo 2020.

During construction, another 73 people suffered serious injuries requiring three or more days off work. Again, this is a near-fantastic rate among 200,000 workers over 247 million work hours.

More seriously for the credibility of the anti-Dubai coverage, the number of deaths and injuries during the six-year construction of Expo 2020 is far below the average for the Western construction industry in general.

In March, the New York Committee for Occupational Safety and Health released its annual construction fatality report, which revealed that in 2019, 24 construction workers died in New York City, with migrant workers from Latin America accounting for one in five of the deaths.

In the UK, meanwhile, statistics from the Health and Safety Executive record that in the year to March 2021 there were 39 construction deaths.

Expo 2020 makes the point that its “accident frequency rate” – a calculation used to measure incidents over a period of time worked – was 0.03, compared with 0.07 in the construction industry in Britain.

Other statistics come to Dubai’s defense. 

The European Union keeps tabs on the safety of employees through the application of a metric known as the incidence rate – the number of non-fatal or fatal accidents at work for every 100,000 employees.

In 2018, the 27 countries in the EU had an average incidence rate of about 1,600 serious accidents for every 100,000 workers. With just 73 accidents over six years, the incidence rate per year at Expo 2020 was a mere six per year for every 100,000 workers.

Similarly, the incidence rate for fatal accidents in the EU in 2018 was 2.21 fatal accidents per 100,000 persons. Expo 2020? Just 0.25 per 100,000.

Of course, Europe’s construction industry is not responsible for all of Europe’s deaths at work. But it is responsible for 20% of them, which means that with a rate of 0.44 death per 100,000 its safety record in terms of fatalities is almost twice as bad as Expo 2020’s, with a similar disparity in non-fatal injuries.

Statistics, in other words, show the highlighting of the deaths and injuries during the construction of Expo 2020 to be wholly unwarranted.

So what about the exploitation of all those workers from South Asia? This is a tired old chestnut, which Dubai and the United Arab Emirates have addressed time and time again, opening up labor accommodations for inspection and enforcing a strictly observed safety code, which among other things bans outdoor working during the hottest hours of the day in the summer months.

Have there been infringements of such rules on the Expo site? Yes. This has been a gigantic project, with no fewer than 2,000 main contractors and another 2,000 subcontractors, each of which employs its own labor direct.

But Dubai Expo’s worker welfare unit investigated and acted swiftly whenever breaches of employment codes came to light, and at least two contractors lost their contracts after failing to address reported violations.

One of the issues that have plagued migrant employment in the UAE is the practice among unscrupulous recruiters operating in workers’ home countries of demanding hiring fees. This practice is banned by the UAE and, after an in-house Expo investigation, 300 workers who had been charged this illegal fee were reimbursed.

And two key points are never made in all the carping media coverage of the “plight” of the migrant workers.

The first is that they wouldn’t be going to the Gulf states to work if conditions and job availability in their home countries were any better.

The second is that millions of people in countries such as Pakistan and Bangladesh – entire communities, in many cases – rely on the money the migrant workers earn and send home: in a typical year, more than US$4.6 billion flows into Pakistan alone in remittances from the UAE.

Finally, the hypocrisy of the negative Expo 2020 coverage will not be lost on those who have been following the slow-motion car crash that is the consequence of the UK’s disastrous Brexit.

The UK is currently in the grip of a series of economic crises, all of which are related to the fact that many of its industries, from farming to transport, can no longer rely on the cheap labor they used to get from poorer European countries. Britons were not prepared to work for the low pay and poor conditions on offer, and still aren’t.

What is now apparent is that for the UK, the “freedom of movement” it has now turned its back on meant the freedom to exploit labor from poorer countries. Perhaps the Arab press should be covering that scandal.

This article was provided by Syndication Bureau, which holds copyright.

Jonathan Gornall is a British journalist, formerly with The Times, who has lived and worked in the Middle East and is now based in the UK.