Dubai Expo 2020 offers conflicting figures on worker deaths

Men watch a display at the Saudi Arabia pavilion at Expo 2020 in Dubai, United Arab Emirates, Saturday, Oct. 2, 2021. Photo Courtesy: AP

DUBAI, United Arab Emirates (AP): Dubai’s Expo 2020 on Saturday offered conflicting figures for how many workers had been killed on site during construction of the massive world’s fair, first saying five and then later three.

Expo refused for months to publicly provide any figures for construction-related casualties in the run-up to the $7 billion fair rising from the desert outside Dubai, designed the burnish the city’s reputation abroad and draw millions of visitors.

Expo officials did not immediately explain their inconsistent statements, which come as the event and the United Arab Emirates as a whole has long faced criticism from human rights activists over the poor treatment of the low-paid migrant laborers who keep the country’s economy humming.

When pressed to provide a number for worker deaths at a news conference Saturday morning, spokesperson Sconaid McGeachin said “we have had five fatalities now,” adding that “you know, that is obviously a tragedy that anybody would die.”

But just after 5 p.m. Saturday and hours after an Associated Press report quoted McGeachin, Expo put out a statement that said: “Unfortunately, there have been three work-related fatalities (and) 72 serious injuries to date.” When asked by the AP, officials declined to immediately explain the discrepancy from a top Expo official and their own written statements.

Expo said that its 200,000 laborers who built the site worked over 240 million hours in its construction. It previously had not offered any overall statistics previously on worker fatalities, injuries or coronavirus infections despite repeated requests from the AP and other journalists.

The admission comes after the European Parliament last month urged nations not to take part in Expo, citing the UAE’s “inhumane practices against foreign workers” that it said worsened during the pandemic. Ahead of Expo, businesses and construction companies are “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.

McGeachin also acknowledged that authorities were aware of cases involving contractors “withholding passports” and engaging in suspect “recruitment practices” and workplace safety violations on site.

“We have taken steps to ensure those have been addressed and very much intervened in cases on that,” she said, without elaborating.

Laborers in the UAE are barred from unionization 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 Friday, with some tourists fainting in the 40 degree Celsius (104 degree Fahrenheit) humid weather.