Dubai, the bustling metropolis in the United Arab Emirates, is abuzz with preparations for the highly anticipated Cop28 international climate talks. However, a shadow of injustice looms as a recent investigation by FairSquare, a human rights research and advocacy group, unveils the harsh conditions faced by migrant workers toiling in the sweltering heat of up to 42°C (107°F) as they race to complete conference facilities for the event.
The investigation sheds light on the plight of more than a dozen migrant laborers hailing from Africa and Asia. These workers were found laboring under the scorching Dubai sun during early September, even enduring the “midday ban,” a regulation aimed at protecting outdoor workers from the deadly heat exposure during the hottest hours of the day over the summer months.
Testimonies and visual evidence paint a grim picture, with one worker stating, “Of course, I get headaches and feel dizzy. Everyone in this heat does. This weather isn’t for humans, I think.” Another remarked, “Last week, I thought I would die every second we were outside … but we have to get paid.”
The gravity of these conditions becomes even more pronounced in light of the global climate emergency. Heat-related deaths are on the rise due to the increasing temperatures. Heat and humidity can compromise the human body’s cooling mechanism, sweating, leading to an elevated risk of heatstroke and potential fatalities.
Migrant workers, constituting about 90% of the UAE’s private sector workforce, are responsible for almost all manual labor in the country, including the preparations for Cop28, which will see tens of thousands of individuals, including heads of state and diplomats from nearly 195 countries, in attendance.
This investigation is part of a series that highlights the perilous working conditions faced by migrant workers in the Gulf region. The majority of the private sector workforce in the region consists of migrants contracted through a sponsorship system controlled by their employers. In neighboring Qatar, alarming statistics reveal that a dozen people from specific countries perished each week while constructing World Cup infrastructure between 2010 and 2022.
Experts argue that exposing migrant workers to extreme heat while preparing the very facilities where world leaders will negotiate solutions to the climate crisis seems deeply unjust. The very heart of the climate crisis is being overshadowed by rights violations and the undermining of labor laws.
“The story of migrant workers in the Gulf region is a story of climate injustice,” says Amali Tower, the executive director of the non-profit Climate Refugee. The Cop28 spokesperson has refuted these allegations, asserting that contractors denied any violations and internal investigations found no evidence that the midday summer ban had been violated.
Dubai, built predominantly on fossil fuel wealth, is a stark contrast to the climate talks it hosts. The UAE is a major oil producer and gas reserve holder, and the country’s national oil company chief will lead this year’s UN climate talks. This, amidst record-breaking temperatures and widespread environmental crises such as wildfires, droughts, floods, and storms that have ravaged communities worldwide.
The UAE introduced a summer work ban in 2022, prohibiting outdoor work in direct sunlight and open spaces between 12.30pm and 3pm from June 15 to September 15. However, it allows limited exceptions for time-sensitive work, such as concrete pouring. Nevertheless, reforms remain limited, trade unions are still unlawful, and the Kafala sponsorship system continues to give employers control over migrant workers’ visas and lives.
FairSquare’s investigation obtained photographic evidence and testimonies from migrants working outdoors at Expo City, Dubai’s premier conference facility, which is undergoing adaptations for Cop28. The workers, seen moving heavy items and working on scaffolding, are integral to the event’s preparation, as the sites are located within or adjoining the “blue zone,” where world leaders and diplomats will convene.
The urgency of the event looms large, with one worksite supervisor emphasizing the need to finish the project in time for Cop28, which is mere weeks away. However, this places immense pressure on workers, as they labor during the hottest hours.
The report reveals that the men worked without breaks when the Wet Bulb Globe Temperature (WBGT) reached 31 to 33°C (88 to 91°F) at Dubai airport. This measure determines heat stress based on temperature, humidity, wind, and cloud cover. The US Occupational Safety and Health Administration (OSHA) recommends regular breaks for strenuous work when the WBGT exceeds 25°C (77°F).
The world watches as the grand stage is set for Cop28 in Dubai, but it also underscores the necessity to address human rights violations in host countries. As the climate crisis intensifies, the UN’s commitment to multilateral diplomacy should not deter it from speaking out against rights violations.
While the Cop28 spokesperson contends that contractors have safety plans and weather stations to monitor worker welfare, this investigation casts a shadow over the event, reminding us that the climate crisis is unforgiving and urgent.