Matt Katz: Hi, everybody. I'm Matt Katz, filling in for Melissa Harris-Perry, and this is The Takeaway. The 19th century was a time of great innovation, and to marvel at all the latest creations, countries across the globe used to gather at the world's fairs. It was there where we first saw the Eiffel Tower, the Ferris wheel, the television and telephone, and where we ate our first ice cream cone. That tradition continues in Dubai right now, but its legacy may not actually be tied to what the public will see unveiled next, but what's laid bare behind the scenes.
The world's fair in Dubai known as Expo 2020 has employed migrant workers to build it out, and many are claiming they were tricked into coming to the city for unlivable wages after paying an illegal fee to local recruiters. Some workers even reported having their passports confiscated, leaving them stranded in a foreign country. For more on the human rights issues plaguing Expo 2020 in Dubai, I spoke with Isabel DeBre, Gulf and Iran correspondent for the Associated Press. I started off by asking Isabel what exactly is Expo 2020.
Isabel DeBre: Over the past century, people have gone crazy for the world's fair. That's where ketchup was invented. That's where the Eiffel tower was unveiled. It's this huge event that meant so much to the world, and in the past maybe decade or so, maybe a few decades, people have started caring less about the world's Expo, but it's still around, still chugging along, and it's at a different country every few years. Dubai won the World Expo bid eight years ago.
It was this huge deal for the city that was trying to put itself on the world stage, and it's this massive event. Dubai built this sprawling exhibition center in the middle of the desert, outside of the city, and it invited over 190 countries to participate. They all have their own pavilions, and you can go inside, and each country is trying to basically pitch you the best things about it. It's like a massive fairground experience, but educational and historical.
Matt Katz: Constructing this project is obviously a massive ordeal. Tell me about the workers who have been creating it, who have been constructing it. You've found that many were forced to survive through inhumane practices. Could you elaborate on what these workers are going through?
Isabel DeBre: As you mentioned, it's this massive undertaking, and it's this massive chance for Dubai to put itself on the world stage. Just because it is the UAE, the Dubai Expo dealt with the same labor system that the UAE deals with. It's called the Kafala labor sponsorship system, and it basically works by tying the workers residency or their visa to their job. It basically gives employers this outsized amount of power where absconding-- they call it absconding, but basically leaving the job or changing employers is not allowed.
That is, you can basically land in prison or be fined or deported for doing that. You're not allowed to unionize, that's also against the law, and in many cases, there's no minimum wage, and you're obliged to live in these sorts of dormitories or these kind of housing where housing is provided, but you have no say over your personal space, your privacy, you live often with sometimes it's just 4 to 6, sometimes up to 10 people crammed into one room. This is the system that prevails in the UAE and actually across the Persian Gulf, and this is what workers were facing here at Expo.
Matt Katz: There were thousands of workers I guess at the height of construction?
Isabel DeBre: Yes, there were tens of thousands of workers over the course of construction. Yes, and obviously it took many years, and we saw that over different periods of time, the conditions differed, and we spoke to researchers that were really documenting the situation during the coronavirus pandemic and when it hit and found that the conditions in these dormitories were, it was very crowded, it was unsafe. You had 80 people at one point sharing a single toilet. You had people who were basically terminated without notice, deprived of months of wages, and that was happening during the pandemic. That was over the course of the year, but also some of these similar conditions did also occur even as the fair opened in the past few months.
Matt Katz: Could you zoom out a little bit, labor issues and worker abuses when it comes to migrant workers, that's not a new issue for the Gulf, right? Can you give a little bit of context here about how Dubai has been built and the way migrant workers have been used in these construction projects?
Isabel DeBre: This is not new, and I think it's become just more contentious over the years, but the system really emerged in the 1950s, as oil was booming and these countries were making lots of money in the Persian Gulf, and economies were developing fast. Dubai, like all the rest of the countries in the Gulf, needed to import foreign cheap labor, and the way to do that was from Africa and Southeast Asia, they don't have a population here that would be able to sustain that.
It's a very small local population, and so they imported ultimately millions of workers that again needed the jobs to lift their own families out of poverty, and so were happy for these positions in the Gulf, and that's how these societies were built. Basically, from the desert, you have Dubai, these massive skyscrapers, a futuristic skyline that was built by laborers who came here from their own countries across Africa and Asia, and other countries in the middle east.
This is definitely not new, but I think what we're seeing at least in the past decade is these government megaprojects are only becoming more frequent, especially with massive events that the world cares about. Whether that's the World Cup in Qatar that's coming up next year, you have Formula 1 in Saudi Arabia for the first time this year, you have obviously Expo. These are big world events that people care about. They're sending their citizens to visit, that boost the brand of the home country. It makes them look tolerant and cosmopolitan, and that's really wonderful for these countries, but it also does bring scrutiny. We're seeing, okay, great that you have these beautiful exhibits and these fairgrounds, but who built it and what were their conditions, and what rights did they have? Those questions I think are increasingly being asked.
Matt Katz: These are migrant workers recruited from their home countries, right? Where are they from and how does that system work?
Isabel DeBre: These people are from typically quite poor countries, mostly Africa, Southeast Asia, a lot from India and Pakistan. What happens is there's a reason why these people are so desperate to work in Dubai, to go abroad. They come from poverty, they're in very desperate conditions, and often, people I've spoken to describe the system where whether it's the village in Ghana or in Fiji, wherever it is, people are whispering about the promise of Dubai and the excitement, the money you could make, the money you could send home, and remittances, the money that workers do send home, powers economies. It lifts families out of poverty. It's a huge deal for these countries like the Philippines.
Matt Katz: Sure.
Isabel DeBre: That's where they're sent. Sometimes they've never been outside of their country, and they're plopped into these fairgrounds in Dubai or wherever they work in the Gulf, but in the case of Expo, yes, they're sometimes on Expo-specific contracts. Sometimes they just are sent to Dubai and then the massive company based in Dubai or Abu Dhabi then sends them to Expo.
Matt Katz: How much are these workers getting paid?
Isabel DeBre: I spoke to many cleaners that were not getting more than $190 a month.
Matt Katz: Your reporting also indicated that some of these workers had their passports or IDs taken by their employers. Therefore it wasn't like they could leave the job or find a different job or go home necessarily, right?
Isabel DeBre: Exactly, and this is something that does happen across Dubai, the UAE, the entire region. That passport confiscation is a tactic that employers use to basically keep their employees, and it deprives people of their ability to leave, their ability to even go to the bank, to do anything if they do want to have access to that, and they're not able to. It's a huge issue.
Matt Katz: Isabel DeBre is the Associated Press's Gulf and Iran correspondent. Isabel, thanks so much for coming on and explaining all these issues related to the Expo. I really appreciate it.
Isabel DeBre: Thank you so much for having me.
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