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Dubai Expo says six workers died, 72 'seriously injured' in lead-up to world fair

Disclosure comes after rights groups accused the UAE of flaunting 'image of openness' to divert attention from its systemic human rights abuses
The opening ceremony of Dubai Expo 2020 on 30 September (Reuters)

Six workers have died and more than 70 have been seriously injured in the lead up to Dubai Expo 2020, an event representative confirmed, insisting safety standards on site were "world-class".

The global trade fair - held for the first time in the Middle East - opened on Thursday with a lavish ceremony of fireworks, music and messaging about the power of global collaboration for a more sustainable future.

It had been  postponed by a year due to the coronavirus outbreak and is being held from 1 October 2021 to 31 March 2022.

For years the event has been plagued by allegations of abuse of migrant labourers. Earlier this week Human Rights Watch (HRW) accused United Arab Emirates (UAE) authorities of using the Expo to promote a public image of openness that is at odds with the government’s efforts to prevent scrutiny of its rampant systemic human rights violations.

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On Sunday, Expo representative Sconaid McGeachin told the media that three workers on the project had died after contracting Covid-19, revising up the total number of worker fatalities since 2015 to six.

"Unfortunately, we had three worker related deaths due to Covid. That was during the course of the pandemic,” McGeachin said at a daily briefing, referring reporters to local authorities for comment on how many Expo workers had so far contracted the virus.

On Saturday, the organiser had for the first time disclosed three work-related deaths and 72 serious injuries among 200,000 workers during construction of the site for the major international fair.

A statement from the Expo said 247 million work hours had been completed at the site, adding that the frequency of accidents was lower than Britain's.

"We have established world-class policies, standards and processes that protect and support the health, safety and wellbeing of everyone involved in Expo 2020 Dubai," the statement said.

‘Systemic abuse’ of migrant workers

The figures were revealed after the European parliament called for a boycott of the six-month world fair, criticising the United Arab Emirates' human rights record and "inhumane" practises towards immigrant labourers.

More than 200,000 workers constructed the huge site on the outskirts of Dubai, which features hundreds of pavilions and other facilities on a showground twice the size of Monaco.

There are limited protections in the UAE and other Gulf states for migrant workers. Those in blue-collar jobs, who work long hours and are paid low salaries, are the most vulnerable. Unlawful practices by employers and recruiters are common, such as illegally charging blue collar workers agency and visa fees.

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HRW said domestic critics are routinely arrested and, since at least 2015, UAE authorities had ignored or denied requests for access to the country by UN experts, human rights researchers, and critical academics and journalists.

Expo 2020 said it enforces higher workplace standards than UAE law requires, and that it audits contractors for adherence and intervenes when infringements are found.

It has not released detailed information on violations.

Under scrutiny

Huge projects in the Gulf region such as the Expo, and Qatar's preparations for hosting the 2022 Fifa soccer World Cup, have faced international scrutiny, with rights groups criticising conditions for low-paid migrant workers, many from South Asia.

Overcrowding in worker accommodation was one of the main factors in a surge of Covid-19 infections in the UAE and other Gulf states at the start of the pandemic.

The UAE does not give a breakdown for Covid-19 cases and deaths for each emirate, including regional trade and tourism hub Dubai. The country has rolled out one of the world's fastest vaccination campaigns, with more than 80 percent of the population of some 10 million people inoculated.

The UAE is betting the six-month Expo will attract 25 million visits. Visitors entering aged 18 and over must show proof of vaccination or a negative Covid-19 test. There are also testing facilities on site.